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Weekend at Bernie’s Big Short

Sure the headline makes no sense. But bear with me …

My first interest in politics that I can recall was listening to my parents arguing about how they might as well not vote because they just cancelled each other’s votes out. I’m pretty sure my mom voted for Jimmy Carter and my dad voted for Ronald Reagan. Subsequently,  solar panels were removed from the roof of the White House and the rest is history. Good to see solar finally making a comeback.

The next time I’d feel any real connection to politics would be summer of 1984. I was spending the summer in Northern Minnesota after high school graduation couch surfing and working odd jobs. One of the odd jobs that I was offered was to drive in the motorcade of Walter Mondale who was running for President that summer.  Mondale had been a longtime Senator of Minnesota before serving as U.S. Vice President from 1976 through 1980. He’d just finished the Democratic National Convention and selected Geraldine Ferraro as his running-mate. Making her the first woman nominated from a major party for that position. At the time I was impressed by such a bold move, but now I understand politics much better and realize it was probably desperation. (See McCain/Palin ticket.)

I was asked to drive a car to the Grand Marais Airport, a single landing strip located near Devil’s Track Lake maybe 11 miles from the shore of Lake Superior and the small tourist town of Grand Marais.

I don’t think I’d ever seen a Learjet at that point in my life. I was much more accustom to the military jets associated with the Kingsville, TX, Naval Air station as they practiced “touch-n-go’s” in preparation for aircraft carrier duty. For the last two years we’d lived near the end of the runway where Saturday morning practices where a regular thing.

But that morning out of the eastern sky, Learjet after Learjet appeared out of the clouds and touched down on this tiny little tree-lined runway that I’d never seen anything other than a small Cessna on.  From my recollection maybe 8-10 planes landed. Press from CNN, dignitaries in suits, and the candidate himself wandered over and piled into the waiting cars. I think I was driving a Lincoln Town Car.

A 25 year-old Joe Lockhart piled into the back seat of my vehicle and settled in for the 45 minute drive to the Gunflint Lodge where the group would be staying. Lockhart was Mondale’s press secretary and went on to serve as White House Press Secretary for Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2000.

At the age of 17 this was pretty exciting stuff.

Long before the era of the 24 hour news cycle, simply having CNN around was pretty exciting.

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 3.33.43 PM

As we drove along mid-pack of all the other cars carrying the candidate’s party, Lockhart asked me, “Who are you voting for?” I replied with, “This is the first election that I’ve ever gotten to vote in since I turn 18 next month. So I’m carefully considering each candidate.” I’m sure that made him feel really comfortable. Someone who’d had a license for about a year and wasn’t even sure if he was voting as a democrat was driving him up the twists and turns of the Gunflint Trail to the middle of nowhere. Obviously Lockhart survived and went on to bigger and better things.

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Mondale flew out of Minnesota to one of the defeats in the history of the Democratic Party despite my mother and I finally turning the tables. Mondale won our household 2-1. I moved out a year later and returned the house to its usual deadlocked state. I’d received my first up close view of the system – and even pared down for a tiny airport being around the eventually defeated presidential campaign was a pretty exciting place to be. I was even spotted on CNN by a friend in AZ on that evening news.

Politics weren’t too much on my mind much for a long time as I’d resettled in Utah a several years later and, well, a democrat’s vote doesn’t count too much in the land of Zion when it comes to national presidential elections. Thanks electoral college. The cheapest college there is.

By my mid-20’s I’d decided to go into journalism and my interest in anything “news” rekindled my fascination with the political system and pretty much ever since I’ve been a news junky. A huge part of today’s news is politics though I still know that my vote means very little in the electoral college sense.

Eventually my journalism interest transitioned into business. Trust me, I’ll address this all at some other point, but I must move this forward. Just trust that my fascination with news continued through this transition and presidential politics, – especially the Al Gore and George W. Bush hanging chad fight, the swift boating of John Kerry, and then the fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It all fascinated me.  Not to mention the McCain selection of Sarah Palin. The older I got the more insane it all seemed. Fascinating yet insane.

By this time I had long transition out of the journalism field and owned a mortgage company. For many years I’d made a very good living at it. I like to think I was good at it. As my assistant would often say, “You’re one of the good people in this business.” I was proud of my approach to doing mortgages. I wasn’t out to screw anyone. I really enjoyed looking for ways to put people in better financial positions. I was well compensated for it, but I never did it in a manner I felt I was taking advantage of people. If based on people plans on goals a deal didn’t make sense, I wouldn’t do it just to get a paycheck. Trust me, there were people who did. And pretty soon the whole world would hear about them.

In the midst of the Obama/McCain fight for the presidency, the financial wold went to hell in a hand-basket. A well documented story. The financial crisis of 2008. 

My fascination with presidential politics and my financial well-being were colliding on the flatscreen that was hanging in my office.  The hope of a different political future with America’s first black president was being juxtaposed with my own personal financial ruin as the mortgage markets locked up in the fall of 2008. It was ugly. All of it. The politics, the stupidity of Sarah Palin, the dumbass look on Bush’s face. The panic in the face of Secretary of the Treasury Hank Polson, the fear in the eyes of his successor Timothy Geithner.  Again, all well documented.

This all came back to me this weekend as I sat down and watched The Big Short this weekend. I’d been putting it off because, in the back of my head, I kept saying, “I lived it.” Fall of 2008 and Spring/Summer of 2009 was a tough time for me from a financial perspective. My livelihood was dependent on a system that had completely broken down and savings were dwindling fast. Sure I could squeeze the perfect loans through and I’d even resorted back to generating income with my camera, but times had definitely changed.

And all the hope that was coming with Obama? Well the insanity of Washington made sure that was squelched as the Republicans would later admit their number one goal would be to have Obama achieve nothing  and  be a one-term president. The mortgage market was locked up as was the political system.

I can’t help but think, “How would the world be different if the number one goal had been to look out for the condition of the American people?”

Then I saw this video in 2011 while still struggling to hang on to my mortgage company. (As I write this, five years ago.) Please take the time to watch. Arguably one of the most honest moments on television about how messed up the system is.

 

SEVEN YEARS AGO: Your congress is bought.

Nothing’s changed.

A month later my friend Kaycee Batt posted a video of Bernie Sanders on Facebook. I don’t recall which one it was but I’d never heard of Bernie Sanders.

Who was this guy? (five years before the mortgage meltdown):

I watched a few videos and thought, “What if all politicians were like this? What if people listened to people like Dylan Ratigan and Bernie Sanders. What if the system, to borrow a phrase, wasn’t rigged?”

And that’s the problem. The system is rigged.

It’s rigged to support the politicians like the Clintons, the rich folks like the Walton family, the Koch Brothers, the Trumps, etc.  It’s so rigged that even Donald Trump is having trouble manipulate it with all his money. He’s learning that there’s a political game you have to master as well.

Fast forward to 2016.

Vanessa Cloke in The Big Short (left)

Bernie Sanders is now running for president. I’m an acquaintance  and Facebook friends with Vanessa Cloke who was an actress in The Big Short. I’m not longer part of the “financial system” as a career. Dylan Ratigan is no longer on TV (that rant was his last day.) He still has something to say:

“Bernie Sanders is the only person running for President who actually tells you exactly what he is in support of as President of the United States. He’s in favor of free college. He’s in favor of single payer healthcare. He’s in favor of higher taxes for the rich. Whether you believe in those things or not is irrelevant. There is no other presidential candidate that is currently running for office who will even tell you how they feel about healthcare, how they feel about taxes or how they feel about education, in fact, how they feel about anything. At the very least, you have to give Senator Sanders unique and extraordinary credit for having the guts, the courage and the audacity to run for president by actually saying what he believes in. It’s outrageous, but it’s true.”

As I sat down to watch the The Big Short, Sanders had just won three back-to-back contests and six of the last seven against Clinton. Any path to him actually being the democratic nominee looks slim. I finished the movie and immediately found myself slightly depressed.

It’s a movie about how a minority of people can see the warning signs of trouble and heed them even at great possible risk and ridicule. It’s a movie about how greed can create blindness. A movie about how millions of people can be hurt by the blindness of people with intimate access to the “system.” The scary part is, yes it’s a movie, but it’s a movie based on a whole lot of truth. It’s a movie generated by the hubris and mistakes eluded by Alan Greenspan in the video above. It’s fact that the economic collapse was caused by the details illustrated in The Big Short. It’s fact that when you operate in a rigged system, the middle class  and poor suffer. It’s fact that while Wall Street folks manipulated the system for profit, Main St. paid. Millions of jobs lost, homes lost, businesses disappeared. It’s fact that Wall Street folks all avoided punishment.

What strikes me when I listen to Bernie Sanders and watch The Big Short, is that there’s no denying it. There is a system. A system designed to keep the powerful in place.

I was part of the mortgage market. By simply making a living through originating mortgage loans, one could say that I was someone who benefited from the rigged system. The problem with that argument is that the system is so complex that you can part of it and not even know it. When I was a mortgage officer I had no idea what a mortgage-backed security was. Sure I knew that loans were bundled and sold, but I had no clue of the complexity. I certainly had no idea about bond ratings of such securities nor did I any concept of insurance on such instruments. I was way down the food chain and as they say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” I knew how to treat people fairly and do the best I could by them. I can, without any doubt, say that I never engaged in anything that could remotely be considered predatory lending.

This election season has made it clear there’s a system for everything: finances, politics, elections, etc. What Bernie Sanders has done, historically and now running for president, is spread that knowledge to the masses. You can go back years and hear Sanders trying to say the same things. As a Senator from Vermont, one doesn’t get many headlines by saying such things on the floor of the Senate. Actually one doesn’t get many headlines by running for president until the people start voting. It’s become clear a cord is being struck. Now people are realizing that there’s serious problems with the current system and it’s difficult to allow that to continue. It’s hard to dismiss once realized.

While Clinton maybe the most qualified person ever to run for president, to Sander’s supporters, she’s part of the system. She’s willing to change her positions when political expedient. She’s part of the problem and they have a hard time seeing how she’d be a change agent. I’ve heard the argument that Sanders has been in the Senate forever and he’s just as much part of the system. The simple counter to that is go look at Sanders speeches from 20 years ago. Go look at his finances. Research how strong he’s stood in the face of being an unpopular voice in congress.

Sanders being arrested in Chicago during segregation protest in 1963.

Sanders supporters see this and understand it. They can see the hypocrisy of other politicians. They have no faith in them. They gave money averaging $26 per donation in March to the tune of $43-million. They get that they have to demonstrate there’s another way. And they are going to be pissed when he loses.

I feel pretty secure, baring any sort of meltdown, i.e. something really serious that pops up in all of the investigations going on, Clinton’s going to be the nominee.

It is this inevitably that depresses me as much as The Big Short. The system is corrupt. Clinton is good at utilizing a corrupt system. Doesn’t mean she is, just means that she has no reason to change it. Just like I had no reason to worry about the mortgage-backed securities that eventually destroyed the economy.

Sure there’s been an awakening, but the system changes slowly. By the time the election takes place, the financial crises that brought many people to their knees will be 10 years ago. People who are 30 will have little reference. They only know the symptoms. They only know a gridlocked government, a republican party in wacky disarray, out of control college and health care costs.

They also know that someone who’s been consistently against the system while in it. Sanders has said it can be different. Young people want to believe it. Perhaps by the time they are my age it can be true.

It’s easy to dismiss them as people who just want all of the “free stuff” that Sanders is proposing. Perhaps, its possible to see them as people who want money spent in a different way. No war, no corporate welfare, no subsidizing of the pharmaceutical  industry. Maybe they think there’s another way to divide this pie:

Change comes slow and Sanders, and probably myself, will be long gone before most of the nation wakes up to message in Ratigan’s rant . Like the “heroes” in The Big Short, until then we’ll just have to deal with the ridicule and sarcasm. Or, make  your friends vote and make their votes count. In Utah republicans outnumbered the democrats in the caucuses 2-1. We’ll be foiled by the electoral college again come November no matter the nominee.

By the way, the new housing bubble is on the horizon and the oceans are on the rise.

 

 

 

 

Size Doesn’t Matter

Click for full-size.

Click for full-size.

Black Rock City

Since I’ve returned from Burning Man I’ve been trying to explain the scope and size of Black Rock City which lasts for a little over a week in the Black Rock Desert once a year.

On Saturday in bright mid-day sun I took a little bike ride to the back of the city and found a scaffolding that was probably about 40-50 high with aluminum ladders attached to it by nylon rope. As I looked up at it I saw a 9-10 year-old running our on the four-foot wide top like he was the reincarnation of a steel worker who’d built the Empire State building. I asked one of the adults down on the ground if it was ok if I climbed up and they say, “That’s why it is there.”

Up I went as one of the guys shouted, “It’s a little sketchy.”

It wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared and as I climbed the last couple of steps the Kid asked, “Gonna take some pictures?”

“Yep.”

“It’s pretty high up here,” he said with a smile. “I like it.”

For those of you who know the BRC layout this was somewhere about 6:30 and J streets. For those of you who that makes no sense, it just means it was not far from the center-back of the city as you looked towards the man who occupied the center of the City about 1/2 miles from any of the camping area.

All-in-all the city is about 7.4 sq. miles with another numerous miles of open playa dotted with art installations and art cars cruising about.

When I wrote in a previous post that I probably saw about 30-percent of Burning Man, I was probably off. Upon reflection, it was probably less than 20-percent.

As I climbed don from the structure a small girl of about six was trapped in a hammock. “Can you help me out?” she in her slightly squeaky child’s voice. I looked around thinking about what might be the thoughts of any adult around that sees a stranger grabbing a kid out of a hammock.

“”Sure dear,” I said as I grabber her under her armpits and lifted out of the enveloping pink nylon hammock. I place her on the ground as she scampered off. Ten feet away her dad was feeding a toddler Gerber baby food and probably didn’t even notice me helping out.

“Is that you boy up on the scaffolding?” I asked.

“Yeah, he’s been climbing on that thing every year since he was four.”

“We’ll thanks for the view. Enjoy the burn,” and I was off.

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Burning Man Radio Recap

Last week I called into the Paul Duane show on K-Talk 630 as Paul was discussing his Burning Man experience this year. I’d originally called to make a brief comment, but ended up on the show for close to an hour-and-a-half, I think. You can listen to the show here:  http://www.paulduane.net/2015/09/burning-man-recap-with-steve-conlin/

Paul Duane -The Flaming Fool

Paul Duane -The Flaming Fool

And you can view the photos that illustrate much of what was being talked about here:  http://midlifesimplicity.com/2015/09/burning-man/

 

An art installation in the playa. Paul Duane interviewing participants.

An art installation in the playa. Paul Duane interviewing participants.

Steve Conlin - photo by Paul Duane

Steve Conlin – photo by Paul Duane

 

Post Emmy’s Tacos

As the Uber driver in a black Kia Forte pulled up to 900 Vine in West Hollywood,  I glanced back at the line of the taco stand to see where the woman in the glamorous red dress stood in relation to the window where you place an order.

“How the hell did he get here so fast?” I said to myself.  Thirty seconds at 1:30 am on a Sunday night in West Hollywood? The fact of the matter was, Uber and I had been having issues all weekend. Lost drivers, three-minute waits that turned into 15. Shared rides that, due to my inexperience, should have been shared but weren’t. My first weekend depending on Uber had been quite an adventure. And now here I was with my Emmy date in line for tacos and my Uber driver promptly here like superUber.

“Hey, that was fast! We’re in line for tacos and might be another few minutes, do you want to cancel the request?” I asked the driver.

“Nah, I’m good. I’ll just pull up back here and hang out. Take your time,” said the dark-haired man in his late twenties.

I looked back to the  Cactus Taqueria from the corner and saw the following scene:

taco-1

My Emmy date in her red dress, barefoot at the window placing her order. What you don’t see is that I’m wearing tuxedo. I think by this time I’d ditched the bow-tie to a pocket. Needless to say, we stuck out just a little bit on this particular street corner in the early morning hours in LA.

We’d been driven to the taco stand by a friend who was headed home.

When I noticed that my date in the red dress was shoeless, I realized she’d left her shoes in our friend’s car. In the interest of expediency, courtesy to the Uber driver and simply just to not forget, I went to the car and got them out and started carrying them around.

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So if you’re with me here, there’s a lovely 6-ft tall woman waiting for tacos in a beautiful red dress, there’s me in a tux walking around with a pair of glittery 5-inch heals and then there’s all of the usual suspects of a taco stand in West Hollywood at 1:30 am on a Sunday night.

As my lady in red stood and talked with our friend, I found myself cornered by another patron asking about the Emmy’s and where I was from, etc. I excused myself when I heard the order of tacos being called out and headed over to reconnect with the other two.

As I neared, a man standing behind me said, “You’re a good man.”

Huh?

I turned and a guy was standing behind me sort of shaking his head.

“Thanks, but what makes you say that?” I queried.

“I would’t be carrying those shoes. You’re a good man,” he repeated.

I laughed. “A man has gotta do what he’s gotta do,” I offered.

“Oh I get it!” he laughingly said.

I laughed again.

“Ha, I don’t think you do,” I thought to myself. He had no idea the story behind these shoes, this date, the situation at all.

He had no idea that I’d spent a few hours shopping for those shoes over the last couple of days or how’d they made my date arguable the tallest woman at the Emmys that night! He didn’t have a clue that we weren’t in a ‘relationship’ and holding shoes wasn’t an attempt at doing what needed to be done to insure getting laid. He had no idea that my date was more comfortable at Burning Man than the glitz and glamour of Hollywood though she pulled it off in stunning fashion. There was a good chance those shoes would never even be worn again. Nope, he had no clue.

So I laughed it off. As I considered how many other times people have had no clue, we piled into the Uber and headed to Santa Monica. Once there we got back into our taco eating clothes and we ate tacos, chips and guacamole. We talked and lamented how fast the weekend had gone and how much it sucked to be leaving California in morning. With a ‘good night’ we fell asleep.

The stranger from the corner did have one thing right though. At that moment, for different reasons entirely, I had felt like a good man.

 

 

 

Burning Man

I’m no longer a Burning Man virgin. After seven nights and six days in the Black Rock City (BRC) I feel confident that I got a good feel for the Burning Man experience. While I think that there is no way two people could go to Burning Man and come away with the same experience, thoughts or memories. I think everyone can have a similar sense of wonder and awe. The scope of BRC, the playa and the few afternoons of relentless wind are things I think will stick with most attendees.

I went to Burning Man this year with a pretty good understanding of what it is. I’d been thinking about going since the late 90’s when several of my friends attended many years in a row. Each year there just seemed to be something else I was committed to or I didn’t have anyone to go with or any number of excuses popped up. In 2015 I had none. I committed early in the summer, found a ticket and made it happen. Along with a friend, Paul Duane, and a place to camp, Cosmic Recess, I headed out. After a drive that totaled about 20 hours (including 8 hours of delays) I found myself on the playa of the Black Rock Desert.

More waiting, but at least you're on the playa. Starts to feel like you are "at Burning Man."

More waiting, but at least you’re on the playa. Starts to feel like you are “at Burning Man.”

I had an idea, but there are a few things that I hadn’t expected. The first was the shear size and scope of Burning Man. The second was the amount of things to do while you are out in the middle of nowhere for a week.

I live in a city of about 79,000. There are about 70,000 people who attended Burning Man this year. I kept trying to imagine what would happen if the city I lived in simply moved out into the desert in three days in to roughly seven square miles and made a go of it. It was impossible to even consider. Can you envision seven square miles filled with RVs, tents, porta-potties, DJ’s, skating rinks, art, etc.?  I thought I could. I was wrong. Burning Man is big. On top of the RV/camp section there are another seven-plus miles of art installations in open playa. I would estimate that I saw about 30% of the Burning Man event and much of that was just a walk or ride-by.

The playa.

The playa.

When I arrived at burning Man I truly had no set agenda. As you hit the gate, and they collect your ticket for entry, a gate attendant hands you a book that lists every event on each and every day by time. It’s a fairly thick book there are all kinds of things to do. I like to say you can go from having an orgy to listing to a Ted talk and everything in between. I never opened that book until I got home. My intention was to turn off my watch, turn off my phone and simply go with what moves me. I did have an inkling that every night I would want to take out my camera while the light was nice. I quickly found out that I wanted to have a camera with me at almost all times. Burning Man it is very visually stimulating. What follows are a ton of photos representing a relatively loose at it of all of the pictures I took during the week.

Some are portraits of people I’d met there, some are random people I walked up to, some are just the scenes that I saw. Thanks to everyone who was so kind and willing to be photographed. I hope you like what you see.

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Some of them are not safe for work. You have been warned.

Again, NSFW pics do appear in this collection. If you are not comfortable with the human form in a non-clothed state, please do not go forward and try to avoid your mirror when you get out of the shower.

From I-80 it took 8 hours to get to the playa. 109 miles.

From I-80 it took 8 hours to get to the playa. 109 miles.

Waiting.

Waiting.

On the playa. Speed limit 10. Headed for the gate.

On the playa. Speed limit 10. Headed for the gate.

Pee break. You can not pee in public or on the playa. Leave no trace.

Pee break. You can not pee in public or on the playa. Leave no trace.

Pastel skys and the need to go.

Pastel skys and the need to go.

Our first visitors. Claire from Spain and Fred from France and England.

Our first visitors. Claire from Spain and Fred from France and England.

Claire, Fred and Paul.

Claire, Fred and Paul.

Five Wives Vodka makes quick friends.

Five Wives Vodka makes quick friends.

Art cars are plentiful on the playa and can be just about anything you imagine.

Art cars are plentiful on the playa and can be just about anything you imagine.

Art car

Art car

Our camp, Cosmic Recess, was a playground in the desert. Slides, swings, etc.

Our camp, Cosmic Recess, was a playground in the desert. Slides, swings, etc.

Swinging at Cosmic Recess.

Swinging at Cosmic Recess.

I think he works out.

I think he works out.

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Talk to God. Evidently there was another booth where you could be God and talk to the folks using this booth.

Talk to God. Evidently there was another booth where you could be God and talk to the folks using this booth.

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bikes bikes bikes

bikes bikes bikes

There was so much to do that when you had a party and were giving away free alcohol, you literally needed a carnival barker on the corner to entice people to come in.

There was so much to do that when you had a party and were giving away free alcohol, you literally needed a carnival barker on the corner to entice people to come in.

necklace

necklace

Cosmic Recess playground.

Cosmic Recess playground.

Cosmic Recess playground.

Cosmic Recess playground.

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I think the blue lipstick caught my attention.

I think the blue lipstick caught my attention.

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The Temple at sunset.

The Temple at sunset.

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An art installation in the playa.

An art installation in the playa.

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The Pilot Fish. An art car that called our camp home. It was our ride once in a while as well as a beacon for campmates when at an event in the playa.

The Pilot Fish. An art car that called our camp home. It was our ride once in a while as well as a beacon for campmates when at an event in the playa.

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The Totem of Confession that eventually burned with Timothy Leary ashes in it.

The Totem of Confession that eventually burned with Timothy Leary ashes in it.

Giant typewriter in the desert.

Giant typewriter in the desert.

Temple

Temple

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Lounging under the parachute. Paul Duane.

Lounging under the parachute. Paul Duane.

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Paul Duane preparing to give a little advice.

Paul Duane preparing to give a little advice.

Advice seekers arrive from the dust.

Advice seekers arrive from the dust.

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I stopped this woman and asked to photograph her. Her response caught me by surprise. "I came by myself and I wondered if I'd have any pictures of me." I hope she finds this one.

I stopped this woman and asked to photograph her. Her response caught me by surprise. “I came by myself and I wondered if I’d have any pictures of me.” I hope she finds this one.

... and this one.

… and this one.

BRC-71 BRC-72 BRC-73 BRC-74 BRC-75 BRC-76 BRC-77 BRC-78 BRC-79 BRC-80 BRC-81 BRC-82 BRC-83 BRC-84 BRC-85 BRC-86 BRC-87 BRC-88 BRC-89 BRC-90 BRC-91 BRC-92 BRC-93 BRC-94 BRC-95 BRC-96 BRC-97 BRC-98 BRC-99 BRC-100 BRC-101 BRC-102 BRC-103

Awesome, fun, friendly sisters from Poland.

Awesome, fun, friendly sisters from Poland.

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One Job.

One Job.

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I don't even know what was going on and never stopped to find out.

I don’t even know what was going on and never stopped to find out.

BRC-125 BRC-126 BRC-127 BRC-128 BRC-129 BRC-130 BRC-131 BRC-132 BRC-133 BRC-134 BRC-135 BRC-136 BRC-137 BRC-138 BRC-139 BRC-140 BRC-141 BRC-142 BRC-143 BRC-144 BRC-145 BRC-146 BRC-147 BRC-148 BRC-149 BRC-151 BRC-150 BRC-152 BRC-153 BRC-154 BRC-155 BRC-156 BRC-157 BRC-158 BRC-159 BRC-160 BRC-161 BRC-162 BRC-163 BRC-164 BRC-165 BRC-166 BRC-167 BRC-168 BRC-169   BRC-174 BRC-175 BRC-176 BRC-177 BRC-178 BRC-179

I loved the look of these two as they walked toward me. I'm happy that the pictures captured what I saw.

I loved the look of these two as they walked toward me. I’m happy that the pictures captured what I saw.

BRC-181 BRC-182 BRC-183 BRC-184 BRC-185 BRC-186 BRC-188 BRC-187 BRC-189 BRC-190

Martian

Martian

BRC-192

Zaphod - builder of the pilot fish.

Zaphod – builder of the pilot fish.

BRC-194

David and Dixie

David and Dixie

BRC-196 BRC-197 BRC-198 BRC-199 BRC-200

Marsha

Marsha

BRC-202

The Pope at the Tiki bar.

The Pope at the Tiki bar.

Cupcake

Cupcake

This gentleman is the maker of this art car as well as the Medusa metal work you'll see in a different pic. I need to find his name.

This gentleman is the maker of this art car as well as the Medusa metal work you’ll see in a different pic. I need to find his name.

BRC-206

Marsha

Marsha

BRC-208 BRC-209 BRC-210 BRC-211 BRC-212 BRC-213 BRC-214 BRC-215 BRC-216 BRC-217 BRC-218 BRC-219 BRC-220 BRC-221

Jared and the accordion.

Jared and the accordion.

Jared and the disco ball helmet.

Jared and the disco ball helmet.

BRC-224 BRC-225 BRC-226 BRC-227 BRC-228 BRC-229

Suzy Q - we spoke for hours in the dust storm with our eyes and faces covered. It was good to see a face after the wind subsided!

Suzy Q – we spoke for hours in the dust storm with our eyes and faces covered. It was good to see a face after the wind subsided!

BRC-231 BRC-232 BRC-233 BRC-234 BRC-235 BRC-236 BRC-237 BRC-238 BRC-239 BRC-240 BRC-241 BRC-242 BRC-243

Paul Duane seeks shelter in the dust storm.

Paul Duane seeks shelter in the dust storm.

BRC-245 BRC-246

Orgy Dome. Yep, it is what you think it is.

Orgy Dome. Yep, it is what you think it is.

Orgy Dome events.

Orgy Dome events.

BRC-249 BRC-250

Temple

Temple

Temple

Temple

Temple

Temple

The front porch. These folks love to sit on their porch and people watch. Sounds like a perfectly acceptable Burning Man activity to me.

The front porch. These folks love to sit on their porch and people watch. Sounds like a perfectly acceptable Burning Man activity to me.

BRC-255 BRC-256 BRC-257

Paul Duane

Paul Duane

BRC-259 BRC-260 BRC-261 BRC-262 BRC-263 BRC-264 BRC-265 BRC-266 BRC-267 BRC-268 BRC-269 BRC-270

Temple

Temple

BRC-272 BRC-273 BRC-274 BRC-275

Cousins on the playa from Denver and New Orleans.

Cousins on the playa from Denver and New Orleans.

Michelle.

Michelle.

BRC-278 BRC-279 BRC-280

Barbie Death Camp

Barbie Death Camp

BRC-282

Fire Tuba.

Fire Tuba.

BRC-285 BRC-286 BRC-287 BRC-288 BRC-290 BRC-289 BRC-291 BRC-292 BRC-293 BRC-294 BRC-295 BRC-296 BRC-297 BRC-298 BRC-299 BRC-300 BRC-301 BRC-302 BRC-303 BRC-304 BRC-305 BRC-306 BRC-307 BRC-308 BRC-309 BRC-310 BRC-311 BRC-312 BRC-313 BRC-314 BRC-315 BRC-316 BRC-317 BRC-318 BRC-319 BRC-320 BRC-321 BRC-322 BRC-323 BRC-324 BRC-325 BRC-326 BRC-327 BRC-328 BRC-329 BRC-330 BRC-331 BRC-332 BRC-333 BRC-334 BRC-335 BRC-336 BRC-337 BRC-338 BRC-339 BRC-340

The day a dead bird photo became my most liked on Instagram

People are such odd creatures-myself included. But as a group they can be even more odd than individuals. I think maybe this is because you notice the real odd-ball individuals, but the oddness of a group makes its appearance in more subtile ways.Today the oddness of people as a group made itself apparent on my Instagram page.

I don’t have a huge amount of followers, around 600 at last count. I’m not some sort of Instagram “celebrity” or do I post specific pictures about a specific topic. To be honest, since I have no cute baby pictures to post, I lean toward taking and posting a lot of pics of my 14-year-old dog along with an occasional scenic picture or even selfie once in a great while.

monument

Sometimes I’ll post a pic of a friend or even a pic of me and Charlie, the aforementioned dog.

butchers

Most the time I’m just posting whatever presented itself on a given day without much thought behind it other than, “It’s pretty. It’s cute. It’s someone I know.”

Pretty much how most people use Instagram.

“Hey, look at this, because I did and now I want to tell you about it.”

charlie

Obligatory cute dog photo.

On average I’d say I get 10-50 likes on a particular photo as I figure that’s about how many close friends and family I have at any given time who are willing to stroke my ego and double-tap a pic for a little heart symbol to pop up. They give and get a little in return. Every once in a while, my dog seems to do something that strikes a cord and I’ll suddenly see 100 to 200+ likes.

I quickly think, “Awe, dogs and babies! The key to instant ego strokes on Instagram. Please understand that I’m man and I don’t have the option of throwing a half-naked pic of myself up for a quick ego boost! Surprisingly, when I have thrown up the occasional pic of a hot woman, not in any state of undress, I get the same number of likes on the pics as I would most my pics. I’d like to think that says something about my friends but I’ll save that for another blog entry.

Okay, I think I have sufficiently buried the lede here.

Over the weekend I was in Malibu, CA and decided to take a little stroll on the beach. I took my Canon 5D Mark III for “real” pictures and my iPhone as I normally would. As I walked down the beach and took typical pics of birds, sun rising, fisherman or whatever caught my eye as visually interesting I cam across a dead bird on the beach and walked past it.

After a few steps, I thought, “That was kind of interesting.” I returned to the bird laying in the sand. It had obviously been dead for a while. the manner in which it rested became very interesting to me and I reached for my phone and snapped a pic. I didn’t even use my “real” camera. It was just something I wanted to remember for some reason.

bird

I continued my walk and thought little more about the decomposing bird. When I returned to my campsite I was looking through the pics I’d taken and this image struck me is really unique. I liked the position, the tones, the striking beauty in the face of the obvious death.

So what to do? Instagram it of course.

Over the last 4 days, I noticed a consistent stream of likes for this photo. It made me start pondering what is up with that? Did people simply see the same thing I did? Is there a subculture of people who dig dead birds out there? I don’t think a live bird would get anywhere the same amount of likes. At the same time, I posted the same pic on Facebook and no one has liked it. Is it that none of my friends like dead birds while a lot of, evidently Spanish speakers, do? Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 5.02.08 PM

As of this afternoon, this pic became my most liked photo of my 650 Instagram posts and I find it as strange, beautiful and odd as the picture itself.

Feel free to follow my Instagram page:

http://instagram.com/steve_conlin_photo/

 

 

 

 

Driving on and UFOs

As I headed out of Furnace Creek, the site of the warmest temperature ever recorded on planet earth, the temperature was a steaming 47 degrees. The sky was blue, with light streaks of high-level clouds. It was 9:30 am. I was eager to get on the road for my destination was Rachael, NV.

Death Valley, CA

Death Valley, CA

Rachael is infamous for being located on the Extraterrestrial Highway aka Nevada State Route 375.  It is also famous for the Little A’Le’Inn, located a mere 28 miles from the runways at Area 51/Groom Lake.  But I still had 245 miles to drive and sights to see.

At the Northwest end of Death Valley there’s an interesting site called Scotty’s Castle. Before stopping at the visitor’s center I’d never heard of Scotty’s Castle nor had any idea of it existence. In a nut shell, in the 1920’s there was a character named Walter Scott. He was also known as Death Valley Scotty and he was a con man. He tried to get wealthy people to invest in his gold mining schemes in Death Valley. One of the investors, Albert Johnson, came to visit his fraudulent investment and feel in love with the landscape and began building a 32,000 sq. ft. home that cost around $2 million in 1922 dollars.  It has a $50,000 pipe organ.

Scotty's Castle

Scotty’s Castle

The 1942 film location of Castle in the Desert with Charlie Chan is loosely based on Scotty’s Castle.

Scotty's Grave

Scotty’s Grave

After a short stroll through the grounds of Scotty’s Castle I headed North into Nevada. Looking forward to visiting alien territory, but keeping in mind that I wanted to enjoy the trip. I was driving through a part of the country I’d never visited. I’m pretty sure I knew why now.  Western Nevada is not any more attractive than any other part of Nevada. Yes, I can look at the desolate landscape and find beauty. And it is a beauty that I truly appreciate, especially in the right light. But lets me honest, it is the same landscape for miles and miles and miles.

On the road

On the road

Between Death Valley and Rachael, I went through three towns. Beatty which I don’t even remember driving through. Then I hit a funky little town called Goldfield. As the name implies, Goldfield was a mining boom town. It is a cross between and ghost town and a main street from the 1930’s. At one point during its mining heyday 20,000 people lived in the booming town. That number is now around 440, though the remaining building look like they’re could be 1000’s. One of those 440 is known as “the world’s meanest bartenders.” I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.

World's Meanest Bartender

World’s Meanest Bartender

Haunted Hotel

Haunted Hotel

I’d found out that the Goldfield Hotel at which I’d parked the van in front of was extremely haunted. Time to get on down the road.

I fueled up in Tonopah, NV another mining town and headed east into central Nevada. After an hour or so on the treadmill of desert landscape I turned south on highway 375 toward Rachael.  The landscape hadn’t changed, but the anticipation had.

As I kid I became enthralled with the idea of aliens and UFO’s. When I was 12 years-old, there was a show on TV I recalled being named Project Blue Book. It also was known as Project U.F.O  and the stories were pulled from the USAF “Project Bluebook” files where the Air Force investigated possible UFO sightings. It was a short-lived program, but it introduced me to the idea of alien’s and I remember evaluating each story for credibility and/or ridiculousness. I was an open-minded yet critical kid.

Now through the mainly the History Channel, these stories and ideas have become a part of our national lore and I remain a skeptical but open-minded listener of tales and theories. I feel that anything sighted in the middle of Nevada is military related and has nothing to do with aliens, but this didn’t quell my enthusiasm for visiting the area. It’s a part of Americana and I wanted to visit first hand not to mention get out of the desert landscape for a few minutes.

I really hadn’t consulted a map to know where I was in relation to Area 51 but I drove south with my eyes scanning the horizon for anything interesting. I passed a few interesting geologic features of the landscape. The dark ancient lava rock contrasting against the winter brown grasses. I passed a white ford pick-up on the side of the road with a man in it scanning the range with a pair of binoculars. For a moment I thought maybe he was looking for strange activities, but then rationally thought he’s probably counting cattle. The road cuts through open-range cattle grazing. It’s common to have cows laying in the road given there is so little traffic.

Occasionally I would pass a cattle crossing sign that had been altered to have an alien head stuck on to the head of the cow or some other alteration done by folks trying to be funny. Then, after 45 minutes or so some buildings appeared on the horizon and a sign indicated I was approaching Rachael, NV.

Turns out the road I’d been traveling south was just gets you to the part of Highway 375 that is called the Extraterrestrial Highway.

Rachael, NV is the home of the Little Al’Le’inn. A destination of the curious, the silly and the obsessed. Probably the only food joint in 2 hours any direction, excluding food on the government installation to the West. It was mid-afternoon and as explained in my last entry, this meant the sun would be setting in about two hours. I hadn’t even had lunch yet.

Extraterrestrial Highway Sign

Extraterrestrial Highway Sign

After stopping at the Extraterrestrial Highway and adding a few stickers to the menagerie stuck on it by others, I headed to Little Al’Le’inn – “Earthlings Welcome”. I downed a “World Famous Alien Burger” No indication whether it was made from real aliens or not, and I was concerned about what the “Alien Sauce” might be. Best I could tell the burger was just made from cow and the sauce was pretty nondescript and ketchup based.

World Famous, not galactic famous unfortunately

World Famous, not galactic famous unfortunately

mmm alien meat

mmm alien meat

The atmosphere was all alien from the alien tequila to the collection of movies and books about aliens. There was plenty of things to look as I waited for my burger and silly souvenirs to consider. Luckily my recent purge of belongings has made me very reluctant to buy things just to buy them and I passed on the alien coffee mug, the space pen and the giant alien head bottle of tequila.

Me

Me

As I was getting ready to leave, I asked the woman behind the counter where exactly Groom Lake was and she said, as you head south it is to the west for the next 21 miles. She kindly handed me an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of photocopied paper with a map on it that oriented me and I headed out the door.

As I continued my drive south, the scenery really wasn’t any different from I’d seen all day. There was more traffic. I mean in the next 21 miles I saw at least five cars compared to the three I’d seen the previous four hours. There were a couple of dirt roads that headed west. According to the map I’d been given, they headed to Area 51. Curiosity almost got the best of me as I considered turning down one of them, but then I thought about how clean my new van was and how close to dark it was getting and I drive on.

Off in the distance I could see the dust being kicked up by a vehicle traveling down a dirt road, I estimated it was 3 miles or so down the road. Rumor has it the government puts very fine dirt on the road so that vehicles will create an easy to see plume of dust as they approach the installation.

Down that road, security awaits.

Down that road, security awaits.

As you get past the area where Area 51 in off to your left, Highway 375 makes a hard turn to the east and travelers are headed away from the military installation. As I came up to the turn I saw a hand painted sign on a huge panel of canvas hanging off of stacked hay bales that said, “Snoops Welcome” and next to it was an open field where a couple of large RV’s were parked.

I suddenly heard the sound of emails arriving on my phone and saw I had signal for the first time in four or so hours. The sun was starting to set and the cloud cover had thickened up a bit. It wasn’t threatening rain, but it was mostly cloudy.

As I headed east I made a call to a friend to check in and after a few minute conversation I hung up the phone. I glanced down, taking my eyes off the road for a moment, as I placed in the cubby hole in my dash underneath my stereo.

When I looked up I was shocked to see two bright orange lights in the sky! They were perfectly round, bright like the sun but orange and about the size of a dime on my windshield. The were spread apart about 20 degrees in my field of view and then in a matter of seconds they went off like someone had hit a light switch. Both at exactly the same time. Gone. Nothing in their place against the clouds. No subtle fade out as if entering the clouds. There, then gone. It was strange. It was fast. And for a second I didn’t believe my eyes. I grabbed my phone and turned the screen on. I moved it around to see if I’d inadvertently created a reflection of some sort. Nothing.  I don’t know what I saw, but I saw it.

Area 51 did not disappoint. My plan all along had been to do a drive by. Now I’m really curious. I have no doubt that what I saw was military. I’m not one that sees aliens everywhere, if anywhere. What remains with me is a curiosity about the area, the people and the mystery. I will venture back into this part of the country, perhaps this spring when it warms up a bit.

In another 20 minutes it was dark and I was, once again, seeking a place to stop of the night. Highway 375 gave way to Highway 93 and in about an hour I was in an RV park in Caliente, NV.

Death Valley

DEATH VALLEY, CA – I think I’ve figured out something about myself. Over the years I’ve really prided myself on getting shit done. Goal oriented would be a fair statement about my personality. Whether job performance or solving a problem, I’ve never found much satisfaction in trying yet never meeting the goal. Give me a computer with problems and I will spend every frustrating moment I have until it is solved. Just to be clear, I don’t enjoy the efforts required to solve the problem, I only enjoy it when the problem is solved. And the level of satisfaction I get from having the task resolved nowhere matches the cussing and bitching that was encountered to get to a point of resolution. So it was getting to Death Valley.

Keep in mind, this story really doesn’t differ from the many other times I’ve headed somewhere with camping as part of the goal. Before I picked up the van, I’d made plans to drive to Death Valley the first night and stay there. While at the dealership they offered me a free camp space at a local campground so that I could stay and familiarize myself with the van and ask any questions I might have the next day before hitting the road. They said that people often stay a couple of days.

Now let’s be honest, camping in Las Vegas proper just doesn’t sound fun. I mean, if I’m going to stay in Vegas, its gonna be hookers and blow. Ok, maybe gambling and strippers. Ok, maybe just blackjack and “free” cocktails. But as I sat there with my head spinning after a three-hour run-through of all of the features and critical operational requirements of this Leisure Travel Free Spirit Mercedes Sprinter Van that somehow now seemed more complicated than its name is long, I decided to make a reservation at the campground.

“Maybe insuring that you know how to dump the human waste out of the bottom of your van is a good thing to have a firm handle on,” I thought to myself. The vague recollection of Chevy Chase and Robin William’s movies kept flashing through my brain.

I left the dealer and headed out to hit the airport, Target and REI as chronicled in the previous post. Finding myself in late-afternoon traffic and a simple exit off the freeway in sight to get me headed towards Death Valley, I made a decision and headed West. I had no idea where the campground was, but the road to Death Valley was right here!

So I made a call to Daryl at Wagon Trail RV and said, “Cancel the reservation, I’m on the road. I’ll call you tomorrow if I have an issues.” It was about 3:30 in the afternoon.

Now here’s where my stubbornness, task oriented personality sometimes doesn’t serve me. Do you know what time it gets dark in Las Vegas this time of year? Well I didn’t. As I headed down the highway westward, it started to get pretty dark. By 4:40 pm it was night. I mean, dark. By 5 pm, stars out. Lights on bright. Dark.

Headed towards Death Valley, CA from Las Vegas at 4:20 pm.

Headed towards Death Valley, CA from Las Vegas at 4:20 pm.

Death Valley is about 2 hours and 45 minutes from Las Vegas and by God I was going to get there tonight. On a basically straight road with darkness as my scenery I drove and drove in my new van until I hit Furnace Creek. In my headlights I saw a sign that said “Texas Spring Campground.”

“Texas Spring, hmm, well I’m from Texas so this must be where I’m supposed to stay.”

I’m not really much a believer of signs, but it made for a good rationalization.

With that I pulled up to the automated kiosk and paid $14 for a camp spot and lumbered into the campground. It was cold and most campers were in with lights out for the evening already. It was after 7 pm and dark after all.

I saw what looked like a flat area with a picnic table, pulled in made my bed and called it a night.

This story has been such an habitual way of camping for me that I’ve become accustom to the excitement of seeing what it is going to look like when I wake up in the morning. It happened in Canyonlands, The Grand Canyon and a multitude of places where I was just car camping. I seem to have this desire to just drive and drive till I get as close to my destination possible without passing out.

The morning view from the van window at Texas Springs Campground, Death Valley, CA

The morning view from the van window at Texas Springs Campground, Death Valley, CA

“So what?” I sometimes think. The problem is that I think I’ve really stopped enjoying the journey. I know it is cliché to not enjoy the journey as you look for the destination, but like a computer problem, I will choose to suffer until the drive is completed. Blasting past interesting things in the dark.

With this van I’m gonna start enjoying the journey. I can sleep almost anywhere in it, I don’t need to stop at convince stores for a beverage or bathroom break. I carry it all with me. My dog Charlie will certainly relish the grass of a rest stop more than the concrete of a parking lot.

IMG_5132

No, there’s no need to rush. No need to drive past the things that interest me. Life should be about the journey and not the destination, as is often said. And really, I should let people who actually like working on computer problems fix them.

 

Good to know!

Good to know!

It took long enough

My simplification plan has been this:

Get out of the big house that required lots of maintenance, was too big for me and Charlie, and was expensive. The second part was to move to a low-maintenance condo where I could leave for long periods of time and not have to worry about anything. This required parting with many of my possessions. All of this has been addressed in previous posts. It has been a big change.

The third part has been to get a Sprinter van that I could travel for extended period of times when I want to and, perhaps, see if I can get to such a minimal level of possessions that I could live in it. The first two parts happened simultaneously while the third part has been an exercise in patience to the point of becoming a running joke for several of my friends.

Well the joke is over!

It was not-so-bright but early when I boarded the red, white and blue Frontrunner car to head to the airport last Wednesday.  After 45-minute train ride with the morning commuters and a switch to Trax in Salt Lake for another 15 minutes, I was at Salt Lake City International Airport.

A quick check of my backpack with TSA and a rush down the terminal found my plane already boarding for the short flight to Las Vegas.

Leaving Ogden by train.

Leaving Ogden by train at 6:07 am.

I arrived in Las Vegas after enduring a crowded flight that required me to be in a center seat. After exiting the plane I headed for baggage claim only to find my backpack hadn’t arrived. I was politely informed by the attendant that it would come on the next flight about four hours later and that I could come back and pick it up or they could deliver it to my hotel or home. I explained I was actually heading to pick-up a vehicle and would make it back later in the day. She politely explained I could just park in Express parking and run in and get it when I returned.

With a plan, I headed out to passenger pick-up and waited to be picked up by Daryl from Wagon Trail RV. After about 30 minutes Daryl who’d I’d only met once back in March, drove up and we took off to the dealership. It was about 9:15 am and the staff of the dealership was just getting going for the day. The coffee was just being brewed, people where just setting into their desks and I was probably the first customer to walk in.

After taking a phone call, I was ready to see what I’d been waiting for all this time.

2015 Free Spirit by Leisure Travel vans.

2015 Free Spirit by Leisure Travel vans.

This van has been a long time coming. Delayed in production due to availability of the Mercedes chassis the arrival was thee months after what I’d originally planned for. Now after the formality of paperwork, I was ready to be educated on how everything actually worked!

After three hours of head-spinning instructions on everything from how to operate the stereo/navigation system to how to dump my human waste I was given the keys and headed for the airport to get my bag.

So just for the record, I don’t consider myself a stupid person. I try to think of obstacles I’m going to have along the way and navigate around them. With that attitude, before I left for the airport, I looked on the airport website to check and make sure that there were not any height issues that would prevent me from getting into the parking lot so I could pick up my backpack that now would have been sitting there for a couple of hours.  At nine feet, nine inches tall, this van will have problems going in some structures but according to the website the airport wouldn’t be one of them-vehicles up to 13’5″  were welcome.

Off I went into Las Vegas in a 10-foot tall and 23- foot long vehicle where upon total panic set in. This van was huge compared to anything I’d driven in the past and traffic was thick. For the next five miles I worked by way through traffic, learning when I could make lane changes and getting a baptism-by-fire by missing the turn-off to the airport and being routed in the heart of the Las Vegas strip. At least by now I’d adjusted to the size and was getting around pretty good.

After a 15-minute detour I was back in route to the airport.

As you head into the Express Parking at the Las Vegas airport, you come into a little horseshoe turn that then opens up into a fan of lanes offering you several destinations. It helps to know where you are going as you don’t have much distance to get into the lane you need. Imagine my surprise when I came around the corner and the three lanes that I had an option to continue down had yellow bars over them that said 7′ and under vehicles and 8′ and under vehicles. I suddenly felt relief that my van had a toilet in it and horrified that I wasn’t sitting on it. I slowed down to 5 mph with cars honking at me as they whizzed by me. In total panic I was looking for a place to pull over and figure out what to do when a little yellow sign to the right popped into my line of sight. “Oversized vehicle emergency exit” and an arrow pointing into the taxi line. I quickly determined this qualified as an emergency and pulled into the taxi line where it became clear I could move in to the shuttle-vehicle lane where the rental car and long-term parking shuttles were going about their business.

A deep sign of relief was exhaled and I continued in the lane to the point where I estimated the Southwest baggage area was. I pulled over into an obviously illegal parking spot, jumped out and ran into the terminal to get my bag.

After quickly getting my bag I ran back out to the van where three men had gathered around. One of them said, “Nice van.” The other said, “You can’t park here?” I replied with, “Where the hell could I park?” “It’s a $100 ticket for parking here.” Now in Nevada, they don’t put any sort of license plate on a new vehicle. No paper version of a license plate that many other states do. Instead they put a little pink sticker in the front passenger side of the windshield.  I quickly thought, “Who’s gonna stop me?” I threw my back in the cab of the van, said, “Write me up.” And climbed in and drove away.

A quick stop to at Target and REI and I was on my way!

Death Valley bound from Las Vegas my first day with my van.

Death Valley bound from Las Vegas my first day with my van.

To be continued.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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