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May Quick Throttle Column

In the May issue I ask the question "Are biker lives worth less than others?" I was inpsired by an email from a reader who pointed out that in other countries if you cause a death in an accident you face a higher penalty than a minor traffic infraction ticket that you would get here. I think it's a valid point... Meanwhile I struggle with coming up for something for June -- due in 10 days!  Sigh...

Are biker lives worth less than any other victim of a vehicle accident?  I’m serious! It seems that way when it comes to prosecuting and punishing distracted drivers who cause accidents. Or maybe it’s my imagination. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. After last month’s column on the distracted driving bills in Washington, I had a reader drop me a note that theorized as to why the biker community has no interest in working on coalitions to advocate for the distracted driving proposals. My reader suggested that it’s because such laws are generally worthless because “seriously injuring or even killing a motorcyclist carries little penalty regardless of the cause.”

As I think about it, I fear he may be right.  How many times have we seen our fellow riders involved in terrible accidents caused by vehicle drivers, and the driver gets off with a minor infraction such as “inattentive driving” or “running a stop sign”? Meanwhile someone on a motorcycle is horribly injured or worse, killed. My reader tells of a riding buddy who has been crippled for life when a young woman made a left turn in front of him last year. She was written a “failure to yield” ticket and fined $188.

He points out that there is no interest on the part of police or prosecutors, to bring charges against careless drivers, even when the results of their carelessness are horrific injuries or death. It’s true, there are statutes already on the books to allow charging such drivers with vehicular manslaughter or vehicular assault – both criminal felonies that come with substantial jail time.

Is my reader right? He very well could be. It would be fascinating to dig up the statistics and research and compare how many times vehicle to vehicle accidents that result in significant injury or death bring higher charges beyond the traffic infraction compared to vehicle to motorcycle accidents. I have to wonder if sometimes police and prosecutors somehow feel motorcycle riders deserve the injuries they sustain in an accident because we ride a “dangerous vehicle”, as opposed to occupants in a car who are injured for the same reason. Prosecutors have ultimate discretion as to whether or not to file a charge, and what to charge a suspect with, and whether or not to accept a plea bargain.  They could choose to send a message by upping the charges in the cases of serious accidents where the driver of the vehicle is at fault and they seriously injure or kill a motorcycle rider. Apparently, they aren’t.  I can’t recall reading of a recent incident where they have.

Conversely, my reader points out, in Europe its different. If a driver hits or causes an accident with a motorcyclist or bicyclists, the penalties are more severe, and in Japan one can lose one’s license for life if convicted of negligent driving. Here it takes multiple convictions of DUI for someone to lose their license for life, and those are rare. No one loses a license for distracted or negligent driving, no matter how bad the accident or injuries.

So is this why we can’t get riders excited about supporting and advocating for the distracted driving bills? Perhaps. I know sometimes I sound like a broken record – urging the riding community to get behind proposed bills and policy that can actually do some good for us, but that aren’t exactly “biker specific” like helmet laws and lane-splitting. Working in conjunction with other groups on issues like gas taxes, road construction, and distracted driving can help us gain friends who would help down the road on issues that are more biker specific.   I spent nearly thirty years lobbying for various causes and clients, and rarely did we get anything done on our own without some sort of coalition building. You’d think after years of not getting any real headway on our biker specific issues, we would have learned by now.

I do think that the distracted driving bill that just passed the Washington legislature, and as I write this, waiting for the Governor to sign or veto it, will be helpful to a degree in the long run. It will take some time – perhaps a long time – to get people to change their behavior, and it doesn’t go into effect until January 1, 2019, a year and a half from now.  We’ve come a long way since the drunk driving legislation of the 80s as far as changing most folks behavior when drinking, but there will always be some who drive drunk. Lets hope this does the same for distracted drivers.

We have all become wedded to our electronic devices and we rarely put them down. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  I like the fact that the new law has more substantial definitions of what “distracted driving” is and what “using electronic devices” consists of. I like that the penalties are substantial, and double upon subsequent convictions, and that it is reported to insurance companies as the monetary penalties extracted by higher insurance premiums will be something that is a real deterrent.

But until prosecutors and police use the existing tools at their disposal – until they charge those who cause accidents and injuries with more substantial crimes such as vehicular homicide or assault, the impact of any distracted driving law will lessened – and maybe biker lives really are worth less than others.

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com

Just In the Nick of Time

Not unlike a lonely, quiet, two-lane highway, there is something that is incredibly and romantically alluring, while at the same time quite sad, about a set of rusty, unused, and weed grown railroad tracks disappearing off into the horizon. They are all that remains of something once great, now forlorn and forgotten, rusting away and succumbing to the forces of nature. They draw me and make me want to walk down them, to find out why and what they were used for, and to imagine them in their heyday.
Out in the Mojave Desert East of Palm Springs – for a few more weeks anyway – are the remnants of the old Eagle Mountain Railroad. I first saw this rail line in February of 2014 -- the first winter I spent living here in the desert. I’d been out on my bike Angus photographing an abandoned gas station in Desert Center when I passed over the tracks on the I-10 overpass. I exited and circled back to look at the old rusty sagebrush choked line heading off towards the distant mountains. I had vaguely recalled something about an iron mine in the mountains here and figured that was the line to it. Later, I started doing some research and found that it was indeed the Eagle Mountain Railroad, built to haul iron ore from the Eagle Mountain mine down to what was then the Southern Pacific transcontinental mainline.  But it wasn’t until this spring when my best friend and fellow rust aficionado Dave Harmer came down from Salt Lake for a visit that I got to explore the Eagle Mountain in more detail.
What we found was not only fascinating but a great history lesson as well. And as it turns out, just in the nick of time, for earlier this month a rail scrap company began taking up the tracks of the Eagle Mountain. The Eagle Mountain Railroad was built in 1947-1948 to tap into a vast iron ore reserve in the Eagle Mountains and to fuel the huge steel mill that the great industrialist Henry Kaiser built in Fontana, California during WW II to provide steel for his shipbuilding enterprises. And like most research, one finds out things one wasn’t really looking for as one follows the research wherever it leads. Old Henry Kaiser was quite a guy – in the age when this country actually built giant projects and created big things other than software and smart phone apps. He started with a construction company that was part of the consortium that built Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams, went on to build the Colorado River Aqueduct, and then got into ship-building. To provide steel for the ships, he built a steel mill, to get iron and coal for the mill he bought mines and railroads. Later he bought aluminum smelters to provide aluminum for plane manufacturing. If one didn’t know better one might think he was a character from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In a way, maybe he was. Reading in her published journals, apparently, Rand came West to interview Kaiser and tour his facilities as she was writing Atlas Shrugged in the 1950s. Is it a coincidence that a main character in her novel is one Henry Reardon -- of Reardon Steel, Reardon Ore, Reardon Coal etc.?

(In an ironic and interesting “six degrees of separation” kind of connection, Kaiser’s Fontana mill got its coal from a mine at Sunnyside, Utah, along the now abandoned Carbon County Railroad – a line Dave and I had also explored some two years ago, and that was abandoned a couple of years before Eagle Mountain was.  You can read about it here: http://grgardner.livejournal.com/95813.html)

But we’ll have to leave Henry Kaiser’s accomplishments for another day. The Eagle Mountain Railroad was 51 miles long – running from a connection with the Southern Pacific at a place along the Salton Sea named “Ferrum Junction” (Latin for iron) – East and over the mountains to the Eagle Mountain Mine. It was built in two years and was one of the longest new rail construction projects of the century. The maximum gradient was 2.2 percent, and it had one long 500-foot trestle over the Salt Creek Wash as well as a few cuts and smaller bridges in it’s somewhat serpentine climb over the mountains to the mine.  In its heyday of the 1950s to the 1970s it would send two 100-car loaded ore trains west from the mine each day to the connection with the SP to be forwarded to the mill at Fontana, and bring back two empty trains a day left by the Southern Pacific. As steel production waned this tapered off in the late 1970s to one train a day and by the mid 80s it was down to one a week. After the mill closed in 1984 the railroad would gradually ship the stockpiled ore left at the mine out for sale overseas until it too was gone. The mine closed down, the town of Eagle Mountain became a modern ghost town, and the railroad stopped running.  The last train ran on March 24, 1986. The rails have been quiet since then.
So, on an early March morning we set out in the Hummer to explore what we could of the remains of this mining railroad that has sat unused out in the desert for thirty years now – slightly under half of its life. Here is Dave examining a washout on the railroad near the massive mine which you can see in the far horizon while my boyfriend Eric who joined in on his first foray into the odd world of Gary and Dave stuff is down in the wash looking at spikes and other rusty things.
That location is at the bottom of “Caution Hill”, so named because trains stopped here after coming down the grade from the mountain to cool their brakes. The tracks wander through the Mojave Desert for 51 miles and we were able to – with the traction of the trusty Hummer – follow along for a good 80% of it.  With no regular maintenance of the tracks or the culverts over the desert washes in the ensuing 30 years since the mine shut down there are numerous washouts caused by periodic heavy rains and flash floods. It’s a testament to the construction of this line, using very heavy rail, that despite the washouts the tracks are in relatively good condition considering.

The huge trestle at Salt Creek Wash still stands. This was the longest bridge on the railroad and carries the tracks over the main water channel coming down the West slope of the mountains.
Very little still exists at the end of the line – Ferrum Junction, where the Eagle Mountain connected with the former Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific, “Sunset Route” transcontinental mainline. There is a small maintenance shed, and a few storage tracks where trains of loads were left for the SP to pick up and trains of empties were returned by SP to be taken back up over the mountains to the mine for yet another load of ore.
When the Union Pacific did some major track work here a few years ago they, apparently unbeknownst to Kaiser who still owns the tracks, disconnected the Eagle Mountain from the interchange, so now the tracks just dead end and there is no connection to the national rail network anymore. Rail traffic has changed in the 80 years since the Eagle Mountain was built and the 30 years since it shut down. The old SP is gone; the Union Pacific has created a high-speed modern railway that hauls miles of stacked containers at 80 mph flying past Ferrum where now there isn’t even a connection to slow the passage of these trains.
And soon even these tracks will be gone. In late April, on a drive back to the desert from Phoenix, Arizona, Eric and I decided to loop off the freeway and go look at the old railroad again. Much to our surprise we found modified backhoes had been busy removing the tracks, starting at the fenced off ghost town of Eagle Mountain and working their way West. Upon walking the tracks further down the line, the crews had already come by and unbolted the rail connections and pulled up the spikes holding the rails to the ties.
It’s understandable that the corporate entity that remains of the old Kaiser empire which still owns the mine, the railroad, and the town would want to recoup some money from an asset that is rusting away out in the desert, and the rails certainly are that. The cost of repairing the line and making it usable far exceed any scrap value – and there is no reason to do it anyway. The business and regulatory climate these days will keep that from ever happening. At one time it was thought the mine pits could be used as a giant garbage dump for Los Angeles' trash which would be hauled by rail up to the mine, but that idea was quashed a few years ago. Pulling up the tracks and selling the rails for reuse or recycling makes more sense than letting them sit out in the desert. Wanting to document the old line one last time Eric and I ventured out into the desert again last weekend in the Hummer. In the short span of one week they had torn up a good 10 miles of track from the town Westward. The rails had been piled neatly along the right of way behind the advancing equipment, waiting for trucks to haul them to a big storage yard in Desert Center. They are moving fast. Too fast.

The work crews have even removed the ties and rails from the washout that Dave was standing on at the start of our exploration in March.

The mine and the town are abandoned now, except for the fencing around it and a few security guards. The huge scars and dumps of waste rock left on the land left from digging out the mountain will remain for eons, but that -- and maybe a lonely street sign or two -- will soon likely be the only visible signs left of the giant Kaiser empire, who’s name will live on in a few places. Places like Kaiser Permanente, the original Health Maintenance organization founded by Kaiser here at this location, and with his Kaiser Family Foundation which engages in philanthropic endeavors to this day (many of which are decidedly anti-capitalist and would be an affront to the great industrialist the foundation is named for, and again, eerily forshadowed in Atlas Shrugged as well.) The Fontana mill has been torn down and replaced by a NASCAR race track, and steelmakeing itself and ship building has all but ended in this country. And geneiss of all that – the mine, and the railroad that hauled the ore, will one day vanish in the desert winds too.

It’s been more than 30 years since a train like the one below, with it's handsome red locomotoves proudly lettered for "Kaiser Steel -- Eagle Mountian Mine" hauled a hundred or so cars of iron ore that have been dug out of the mountain behind it -- crossing over a bridge that is there to protect the Colorado River Aqueduct burried underneath from the vibrations of the heavy loads. The aqueduct, an amazing engineering feat itself built in the 1930s, is also a product of Henry Kaiser -- he built it for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District.  It was designed by William Mulholand, and built by Henry Kaiser's firm some 15 years before the railroad was laid and the mine in production. (photo by Craig Walker, RailPictures.net)
Now the last things to roll over this bridge will be the tractors and loaders removing the rails and ties -- and maybe a lizard or an errant desert wanderer will walk over it sometime if it too isn’t removed by the salvagers.

Once they finish taking up the tracks and the machines all leave, the desert will start to reclaim the landscape, and in another 20 years any sign of the Eagle Mountain Railroad will be gone – save maybe the lonely railroad crossing sign that marked where the tracks once crossed the road. This spot -- where giant ore trains once blew their horns to warn passing motorists as they rolled past on their way to and from the mine, hauling the minerals that built this country -- and which it no longer needs since it no longer builds the giant dams, roads, bridges, and projects that required mines and railways out here in the wilds of the Mojave Desert. It will soon all be a ghost, with few clues or signs as to what was once here. All in all, it all makes me sad.
In my head I understand why they are taking up the tracks, but in my heart I want them to remain.  I want to return to the desert years from now -- to see and to touch the steel -- to imagine loaded ore trains rumbling through the landscape. I want them to remain as a reminder of what once was -- of the power of man to literally move mountains and to dream big. With the rails gone and the roadbed reclaimed by the desert, in the future no one will know what once was here, no one will remember, and there will be nothing to rekindle the glory and the testament to the brilliance and to pay homage to the ego of mankind and what was created -- and which has since faded and soon will disappear like the railroad in the desert. I'm glad I saw it -- just in the nick of time.

April QuickThrottle column

So where the hell has the year gone?  How can we be halfway through April already?  And while I have been working on four different posts for here on topics other than my column, I've been busy with guests and yard work and other things that I've not finished them. Hopefully soon. In the meantime here is my April column, which, even my publisher says, is a "bit snarky". Yep it is, and I hope it makes a point!

Did you hear the one about us bikers being an “oppressed minority” and we therefore should be included in Washington’s civil rights laws? No, I’m not kidding. We are oppressed! You know that section of the law that says you can’t discriminate against a protected class of citizens – like historically oppressed racial and sexual minorities? The one that says you can’t refuse to rent a hotel room or serve someone in a restaurant because they are black or gay?  We bikers need to be in that! By golly I guess I should be in a protected class being a biker. I just never realized it! Discrimination against bikers is so rampant! It’s terrible!  Landlords are refusing to rent to bikers, restaurants won’t let us eat, and hotels won’t let us rent a room. You’d think it was 1950 in Alabama.  People look at us funny and snicker. Hell, if the bike breaks down we have to sit at the back of the bus like Rosa Parks! By golly we must do something. Where’s our Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, or Harvey Milk?

So in the grand tradition of “doing something”, someone in biker land convinced a legislator that it was a good idea to extend civil rights protections to us oppressed bikers, and thus HB 1553 was born which, would, believe it or not, put anyone “wearing motorcycle related or motorcycle club-related paraphernalia” in the list of protected groups right alongside race, creed, gender, and sexual orientation.  That’s right, wearing your HOG vest would be a civil right just like being black.

The Seattle Times ranked this as one of the five most ridiculous bills of the session. I’d add it goes beyond ridiculous to being embarrassing and even offensive. Historically oppressed minorities who faced actual systemic and wide spread discrimination for years deserve these protections. Putting wearing motorcycle gear in the same category as being black or gay or Jewish is laughable. The bill fortunately didn’t even get a hearing, but it embarrassed the biker community and cost taxpayers around $50,000 for the cost of drafting and printing the bill.  If we bikers want legislators to take us seriously when we actually have something we want or need – like lane splitting or even helmet repeal, we can’t be proposing asinine and yes, offensive, ideas like making the wearing of biker gear a civil right.

Shifting gears now, four of my favorite words in the English language, especially when I get to say them, are: “I told you so!” Which I’m doing now. “I TOLD YOU SO!”  I am referring to the astronomical license plate fees now being imposed on vehicle owners in the Sound Transit service district in Western Washington. The increasing tax burden in Washington is one of the reasons I changed my residency to California. Last fall when this proposal was on the ballot I warned that it would make owning a vehicle – motorcycle, car, truck or anything with wheels prohibitively expensive. I said it back then – “get ready to take it on the chin” if this passes.  It passed and with the March vehicle tab renewals going out, all hell is breaking lose.  I told you so!

SURPRISE! Everyone who pays fees in the Sound Transit area sees them going up by double digits – sometimes several hundred dollars more. I can hear the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth all the way down here in the desert every time I open the Seattle Times. But it’s not like you got the wool pulled over your eyes if you voted for this monstrosity. It was all there in black and white in the voter’s pamphlet – exactly how much this was going to cost and where those funds were coming from. Increased car tab and property taxes. Polling showed that it just barely passed among vehicle owners who pay the tax and was pushed over the top by the majority of folks who DO NOT own a vehicle and thus don’t pay the tax.

What you didn’t see however was the formula that Sound Transit uses to determine the value of the vehicle for assessing the tax. They are using the MSRP. We all know that the MSRP is a “suggestion” and hardly is a reflection of value, and further more they don’t account for depreciation. A one-year old car is valued at 95% of the MSRP for tax purposes. Meanwhile Kelley Blue Book values the same car at just 70% of the sticker price. Those of us who were around in the 1990s remember this is how the state calculated license tabs and it’s still on the books. Once I-695 passed and the state went to $30 flat fees (now compiled by a bunch of other “flat fees”), the section on valuation wasn’t repealed and that is what Sound Transit uses to calculate the value for their tax. What’s more the Department of Licensing is even admitting that some of the MSRPs are “wrong”, and that “potentially” they “may” refund the money.  Uh huh.

Is there relief in sight?  Well the Legislature has a handful of bills now to “fix” the problem, by changing the valuation to reflect Blue Book values not MSRP. They may even pass. But since Sound Transit has already sold the bonds that are backed by this tax, and they were based on the OLD way of calculating the tax, the changes likely will be declared unconstitutional by the state supreme court since the bonds were sold based on the old way of calculating. It’s a glorious sleight of hand trick that the Legislature can use – they appear to respond to the public’s outrage by passing a knowingly unconstitutional bill. It goes to court, is overturned, and they look good, they blame the court, and you still are stuck paying the tax. Even Sound Transit gets to sound “concerned” and “helpful” by saying “we need to fix this – but….”  It’s always the “but”.  They too know it’s unconstitutional to change it now that the bonds have been sold, but there’s nothing they can do they’ll say.

My suggestion? Move.  If you can’t do that, ride somewhere over the pass to Yakima or Cle Elum or Ellensburg, rent a post office box, make that your “official” residence and license your vehicles there. Until they catch you you’ll save a few bucks and have a nice ride out to your post office box a couple of times a year to boot. And the next time someone proposes a tax increase on vehicles, maybe think twice about voting for it!

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com

March QuickThrottle Column

Taking a break from floating in my new pool to post the March column from Quick Throttle...

Well the Washington and Oregon State Legislatures have been busy as little beavers the past few weeks as both are in the midst of the annual Legislative Hunger Games – also known as General Sessions. March is kind of a good half-way mark for both states, and a good time to assess what’s been going on and how it might impact us as riders.  Both Washington and Oregon are considering lane split and helmet use laws this session, and Washington is also looking at distracted driving.

Several times in this column I’ve discussed the flaws with the Washington law on cell phone use while driving and distracted driving. We’ve all been out on the roads and faced near misses by drivers who are using cell phones. I would also dare say that most of us are also guilty of using a phone while driving ourselves – including virtually if not all members of the legislature. I know I am guilty of this although it’s illegal now. And this illustrates the problem legislators have when attempting to craft a fix to the law. You can pass all the laws you want – but will it change behavior? And legislators are reluctant to pass something that affects what they do as well.

The current Washington law only applies to holding a phone to one’s ear – and to prohibiting “texting”. The law was written years ago before the advent of smart phones and hasn’t been updated. This poorly written law is essentially unenforceable and even if it were, one has to wonder if a more well crafted law would work better. Well we may find out this year.

Right now there are currently several bills working their way through the session in Olympia, recrafting the law to prohibit use of hand-held electronic devices in all but a few situations and increasing fines for subsequent violations. This seems to be a much better approach than the current law, and, as we used to say in the lobbying business, this one “has legs.”  Because of a lot of moving testimony from victims and their families and an abundance of horror stories, there appears at this point to be substantial support in the legislature for passing something this year -- but it’s a long way through the process in the legislature and to the governor’s desk and we still have months to go. Judging by the votes in the various committees, there is only slightly more support than opposition to these measures. It’s kind of odd coming from a state that has a tendency to nag us to death on so many other things – including helmet use – that there would be so much opposition to fixing the distracted driving law.  Dollars to donuts it’s because so many legislators are guilty of this behavior as we all are.

This issue is one that has the potential to impact riders far more than helmet use, lane splitting, and all the other perennial issues that we as riders and our rider advocacy groups support year after year. And yet our rider advocacy groups are not involved in pushing this in any meaningful way if at all. Why is that? Rarely does legislation have enough support to make it through the system without an organized group or groups advocating for it. And while there are a few voices pushing the distracted driving bills, I know they could use the help and support of the riding community. Of all the legislation affecting riders this session, my instinct and past experience tells me this one has the greatest chance of being enacted. It would be a great way for the riding community to build support for our other issues by getting involved and pushing for this legislation as well. Politics is all about tit-for-tat, and I’ll scratch your back you scratch mine, and this is a win-win for riders and for legislators, (not to mention a cliché festival for column writers) so lets get our rider advocacy groups pushing this in the second half of the session.
Two other proposals that affect riders have been floating about the rotunda this session as well; lane spitting and helmet law repeal.

The Lane Split proposal would allow riders to move between cars at no more than 10mph above the speed of traffic and no more than 25mph total, and only on roads of at least two lanes each direction or a physical barrier. In effect this limits lane splitting to highways and during heavy traffic jams, and keeps folks from lane splitting at 80mph on the freeways as they tend to do here in California. For those of us with air-cooled bikes this is a great bill, and will help move us through the Godawful Seattle traffic and keep us safer from rear-end collisions.  And just in case it tempts drivers to open a car door on a passing bike, such an action would be considered a traffic offence.  The bill stands a very good chance in the Senate, but uncertain in the House where the House Transportation Committee chair opposes the bill. Its very encouraging to see the bill move with the support it has – and even if it doesn’t pass this year, bringing it back in multiple years builds support over time.

The limited helmet repeal bill has died again however. This bill would have allowed riders over 18 years of age to ride without a helmet if they carried the same liability insurance as required for operating a car. The bill got a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee and even a voice vote approving it, but failed to gather enough signatures after the committee to advance.

All of the Oregon proposals for lane splitting and helmet use have not advanced or had any hearings yet.

Yes, it’s almost half-time at the Legislative Hunger Games – and we’ve got some good proposals that will benefit riders still moving along. If they matter to you, make sure you let your elected officials, and any riders groups you belong to know about it. You can’t complain about things not happening if you don’t do your part.

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com

February QuickThrottle Column

Midway through February in the desert, enjoying the sunshine and 80 degree days and an extended visit with my parents -- my pool is done, and softball is staring up...I know tough life, right?  Time to post the February column as I finish writing the March one -- if I can force myself inside to the office...
I’ve always taken great enjoyment in watching people engaged in the political process attempt to reconcile glaringly obvious policy ideas and conflicts.  One of my favorites was a few years ago at a legislative hearing in Olympia where there were dueling environmental groups trying to promote “carbon neutral” energy that doesn’t harm the environment somehow. Apparently everything harms the environment in some way.

You see we must go carbon neutral the environmentalists say, but the bird and wildlife folks don’t like wind and solar power because windmills are essentially a giant food-processor for birds -- pretty much chewing them up as they fly through them like a giant Cuisinart.  And they don’t like solar farms because the light reflecting off the mirrors blind birds and the heat radiating off them fries them like a microwave oven. And both forms put a “scar” on the face of the earth.  But they say we have to have “green power” and these sources aren’t the polluters like power plants, so they are good – sort of. But they do affect wildlife and views and on and on, so they are bad – sort of.  And hydro power isn’t good either because salmon can’t swim past dams so that’s out. Watching their brains try to make heads or tails of the logic in their argument and their conflict was amusing and I kept waiting for their little heads to explode like matter meeting anti-matter.

And guess what?  We have the same sort of debate going on now regarding the helmet law. No, not for motorcycles this time, but for bicycles, however the arguments for and against is pretty much the same for both bikes and motorcycles – freedom to ride, adults making choices, and good for the environment to encourage riding, vs safety and preventing injuries on the other.  But for bikes it seems helmets are bad for bike use – people don’t wanna wear them. And its great fun to watch and point out the hypocrisy of their arguments about bike helmets – which are “good” in some ways and “bad” in others.

You see it seems that one of the biggest reason Seattle, a town that’s uber cool towards bike riders, has failed to have a successful bike-share program like every other big city seems to have, is that damn requirement that bike riders, just like us motorcycle riders, are required to wear a helmet. That’s why the bike-share failed the thinking goes. Helmets.

The helmet law created a bit of a problem when you are trying to both encourage bike riding and operate a bike-share program where folks can, on a whim, rent a bike from a street stand for a quick trip about the neighborhood. It seems most folks don’t walk around with a bike helmet on their person just in case they want to, on a whim, rent a bike from an unstaffed kiosk for an hour or two. And to comply with the law you must provide them with one somehow.

“Pronto” the Seattle bike-rent/share program generated about $9,000 in revenue each moth but costs taxpayers $205,000 a month. The city is finally pulling the plug on this waste of money later this spring and one of the reasons cited for its failure is the helmet law. Pronto has a “free” helmet use bin as part of its component. Yeah, I’m sure that helps a lot. Everyone wants to use a grungy old helmet that someone else has had on their head. I know I do!  Its why we all love wearing those bowling shoes from a bowling alley.

Bike share works in hundreds of cities world-wide. I’ve used them in New York and Salt Lake City and London. Seattle is only one of five that requires a helmet. Other cities like Mexico City, Tel Aviv and Dallas scrapped their helmet laws in anticipation of their bike-share program. Most transportation experts agree that the helmet law is probably the major contributing factor in the failure of Seattle’s bike-share program. It’s wasn’t the thigh-killing hills, nor is it the worst traffic in the nation, nor the endless rain that keeps Seattle from having a successful bike-share rental program. No, it’s that damn helmet law!

My goodness what’s a city council to do?    I can just picture the arguments in the corridors of City Hall.

“But hey, we are SEATTLE!!!! Bikes are big here.”

“We spend tons of money on roads and lanes for them, we WANT people to bike here.”

“But no one will use our bike-share program because they have to have a helmet!”

“I know! Let’s get rid of the helmet law!!!!” 

“Oh wait, that would hurt people, wouldn’t it?” 

“But we must have a bike share program, we can’t be the only real city without one?”

“But people will get hurt if we get rid of the helmet law.” “But we have to have a bike share program!”  And on and on until matter meets anti-matter and their heads explode – or so we can hope.

But in the end, the helmet law for bikes will stay while the bike share will be going away. The nanny state can’t give that up. But you never know. Maybe a similar argument could scrap the motorcycle helmet law too.  We just need to find the perfect environmental-ish argument against them. One that is so duplicitous, so full of conflicts, that the matter and anti-matter components will cause the little brains of policy makers to explode and cancel each other out. Just what that argument might be I have no idea.  Yet.  But I wanna be at the hearing on that one for sure! It will be fun to watch.

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com 

Callin' My 'Slaw Man -- Needin' a Fix!

This past fall when on a trip to Las Vegas with Eric, we stumbled upon a small farmers market in a neighborhood off the strip called Summerlin. It's part of the old Howard Hughes landholdings and they put in a shiny new mall there last year. In one of the stands of the farmers market there was a guy selling home made pickled coleslaw. We of course stopped to sample some. Without a doubt it was the best damn concoction I've ever had. We each bought a jar -- me the "sweet" one, and Eric the "hot" one (the guy puts hot-sauce on everything -- it's an ethnic thing.) Eric's Dad "appropriated" the jar when he got home and hid it because he liked it so much. I've been dolling mine out in small half-cup portions as part of my Nutri-System diet, using it for one of the vegetable servings. But I'm running out. I needed more. I needed my fix!

The website listed on the jar was not functioning, and furthermore I was dismayed to find out that the mall had canceled the farmers market. However, I had the card of the guy making the stuff so I called him. Now his name isn't on the card, and he never told it to me in our conversations, which were all very short and abrupt, almost like I was bothering him -- the calls always abrupt, short, and just a "click" at the end, no "goodbye". Like buying an illicit product from a shady guy -- or so I've seen in TV shows, not that I'd ever done anything like that.  And not the best way to sell one's products, but maybe he doesn't have to be nice since his stuff is so good.  He said he could ship them (very expensive) or if I was passing through Las Vegas I could arrange to meet him and buy some. Since I would be passing through on my way back to my hometown Salt Lake this week I figured the latter would be the easiest.

I got to Las Vegas about 4pm and after I settled in the hotel and gave him a ring. Don't know his name -- guess I'll have to call him my "Slaw Man".  He was busy pickling up some mushrooms (I didn't ask what kind) and said he'd be a couple of hours, but we could meet after.  I said OK, and went to dinner. About 10p he called and said he was still cooking, and I told him it didn't matter I'd stay up, and he said OK. Long about 1145p he finally called and said to meet him at the corner of Rainbow Blvd. and Charleston -- which was somewhat close to both of us. So I got in the truck and drove that way.

Suburban Las Vegas is NOT the strip. There's very little traffic and no one on the street that late at night, so its dark and somewhat deserted, especially on a week night. Rainbow and Charleston are both major arterial streets but they were quiet. He told me he would be parked on the side of the "Rebel" gas station (complete with confederate flags), but when I got to the intersection there were two Rebel's on opposite corners. He never told me which one or what he was driving. One station was well lighted and clean, the other kinda dark and deserted. But the dark and deserted one was easier to get to without making turns so I pulled in and saw this old beat up Winnebago on the side.
I was a tad apprehensive, but I wanted -- needed-- my 'slaw!  It felt like I was buying some illegal substance, and I didn't know if I was gonna get rolled or not.  I could see the headline -- "Palm Springs Man Found Dead Behind Gas Station in Slaw Deal Gone Bad". I drove up, rolled down the window, and said "Hey, you the coleslaw guy -- got my stuff?" "Yeah, you Gary?  Got my money?"  "Yeah".  We both got out of the truck, he showed me a box with six jars of coleslaw. I reached for it, he said "how you paying?"  "Credit card ok or do you want cash?"  "I'll take  a card".  He got out his phone and the attachment for it and I handed him the card -- then signed his phone after he swiped the card.  He handed me my box and he said "later" and I said "thanks" and we drove away.

I'm a happy guy -- got my slaw! I'm telling you this stuff is like crack -- so good its worth going across town in the middle of the night and doing a transaction on side of a dark creepy gas station. Kinda like callin' the "weed man" in states where it's not legal. Whenever I'm in Vegas I'm calling my "slaw man".

"Got my 'slaw?" "Got my money"?  Its worth it.

Approaching Home From A New Direction

Since 1990, when I moved to Seattle from Phoenix, whenever I drove home to Salt Lake I came in from the North. And whenever I came in on the bike it was always from either the North, or the East -- only a couple of times did I come in from the South. The road down from the Northwest -- across the mountains of Washington, across the Columbia and into Oregon and down into Idaho and the vast empty quarters of the Intermountain West, is one that became second nature, always stopping for a night or two in Boise to visit family. And while it was familiar it was still new. I'd find ways to wander off and see how things had changed or find new things. My Mom would complain that I was the only one that could take a 4 hour drive from Boise and turn it into a 9 hour one. But I like to wander, explore, and see. There's a song by the old 1960s folk singer Tom Paxton called "Bound for the Mountains and the Sea", where he sings " when I think of where I've been, I just have to go again, just to see if everything is still the same." That always defined my drive to Salt Lake.

Well now that home is in the Coachella Valley of the Southern California Desert, my drive back to the hometown means I come in from the South. And although I was just in Salt Lake a month ago, that time I again approached from the Northwest coming down from Seattle. Now I'm back again, and this time I came in from the South. And it struck me on the drive in, this is "new".  Well new to me for the most part. I've driven just about every road out of Salt Lake City in every direction, but this will   be the new "route home" -- coming up from the South. I have a few ways to wander and I'm sure I will, but this time it was just a straight shot on what will most likely become the "normal" route -- the back roads across the empty Mojave to Las Vegas, then up Interstate 15 to Salt Lake.
This is a significant change for me. Imagine your daily commute suddenly changed to the opposite direction. The familiar becomes unfamiliar - for a while. The old landmarks that mark your progress aren't there, and over time you develop new ones to take their place. I'll miss my drive down from the Northwest -- my favorite landmarks and ghosts I've photographed.  I'll miss the little abandoned truck stop cafe in Bliss, Idaho, my homesteaders cabin in the middle of nowhere, and Beth at Mollie's Cafe in Snowville, Utah.  http://grgardner.livejournal.com/2015/12/25/  But I know I'll go back someday -- to see if things are still the same, as Tom Paxton sang.

Just like the route down from the Northwest, this new road runs through a vast and empty land, starkly beautiful in it's own way. I love this part of the country and I always will. But approaching from the South brings up different navigational challenges too -- it's not quite "auto pilot" yet.  And unfortunately there isn't a good "half way" stop to spend the night or visit  relatives. I still need to figure out the best places to stop and stretch or gas up, get a bite, or what side roads to wander. And I'm sure I will. It's a lot closer to "home" now -- the drive not as long. As I age, and my parents age, the trip will become a little more frequent -- and no doubt, a little more familiar. But, I'm still a wander and I'll still be driven to see what I've already seen on this road home -- just to see if it's still the same.

Going Down Rabbit Holes

You know how sometimes you get almost obsessed with trying to figure something out, or investigate something, or learn something new and you just keep digging and digging on the Internet this just leads you in all kinds of fascinating directions which in turn eats up a ton of time?  I've call that "going down a rabbit hole."  This happens semi-frequently -- mostly trying to find out things that my friend Dave and I have stumbled upon, like old railway lines and historic buildings and the like. Usually Dave or I will find something about an old abandoned mine and start doing some research and the next thing you know we've gone down a rabbit hole for a few hours and found out all kinds of cool stuff -- well cool to us anyway.

Moving to a new city has made me curious about it's origins and history.  Desert Hot Springs, also known as DHS, is North of Palm Springs on the other side of the Coachella Valley. It's a distinct city that doesn't blend in with the rest of the valley and the string of cities on the South side of the valley of which Palm Springs is the main one. I like it out here. So in my spare time I've done some reading and looking things up, particularly the numerous hot-spring spas and their history.  DHS is the "Spa City" they say, and the town has many of them -- quite a few abandoned and derelct ones that I want to learn about and explore.   I've not found much about theym yet I'm afraid. However Eric and I were at Barnes and Noble's this past weekend and I came across a book put out by the Desert Hot Springs Historical Society about the history of the town so I bought it.
I've been reading it and I've already got a nice list of places to visit on a bike wander one day soon -- some abandoned Dude Ranches and other places that I find cool. And in reading about the history of one of them -- the B-Bar-H Ranch -- I come to find out that the original developer of this old 1930s Dude Ranch (which was just a few miles from my house) was, according to the DHS Historical Society Book, also the owner of a sewing machine company that  -- quoting here -- "was second only to Singer."  Now we've all heard of Singer Sewing Machines right? OK. The other major sewing machine company of that era was the "White Sewing Machine Company."

What does all this have to do with anything you ask?   Well this past Christmas while I was home, my Mother asked me if I'd like her antique sewing machine. No, I don't sew -- I can barely sew on a button on a shirt with a needle and thread. But this is an old treadle machine that dates from the turn of the century, and is really cool looking with family history. It was her grandmothers and my mother learned to sew on it when she was a girl in the 1940s in Clifton, Idaho. It's a classic black machine, made by the "White Sewing Machine Company" (the #2 company) and it has gorgeous intricate gold pin striping, a cast-iron treadle and flywheel all in an oak cabinet -- and it still works!  It's a great conversation piece, and a wonderful gorgeous example of early American industrial design (unlike machines today) and I had a nice spot in my antique filled living room for it. I was happy to take it out of her storage room.
In fact my whole house here is turning into a trip back in time with some interesting turn of the centruy antiques -- much different than the ski lodge the Seattle place was it seems.  In addition to some cool pieces I've collected over the years -- advertising signs and the like, I bought an old oak roll-top desk that's now my bar, and found an old chamber pot that is now a dried flower arrangement, I got a bunch of old books on display in an antique lawyer book case, and with my huge antique office desk I needed a classic desk lamp and old ash-tray stand among other things for that room, but I digress.

Back to the sewing machine though. So when I'm reading about the history of my new town over lunch sitting in the warm sun that is the main reason for moving here, and I read that the guy who owned this classic old Dude Ranch a few miles from my house was the magnate of the #2 sewing machine company, I thought to myself "what a cool connection!" My old "White" machine has ironically sort of come home. This guy owned the company that made this machine some 100 years ago also started a vacation ranch that influenced the early development of the town I now live in. Its kind of a "come full circle" moment in a way.  But in the next paragraph it says he was the owner of the "Free Sewing Machine Company", not White.  Well so much for my unique little story eh?   So I start digging around online.  Don't google "Free Sewing Machine", all sorts of scams come up and links to things other than the "Free Sewing Machine Company" -- I learned that lesson. Adding "antique" and "Company" to the search bar brings up a bunch of links and I learned more about old sewing machines than I needed to, but whatever I looked up it still seemed that "White" was indeed the second largest manufacturer, not Free.  So much for the historical accuracy in the DHS Historical Society book.

Minutia I know, but it spoiled what I thought was going to be an interesting tidbit to use in stories when I people ask about this antique in my living room. Too bad.  It was a cool story.  I just hope the other little rabbit holes I've been going down researching my town are a little more accurate. We'll see.

January QuickThrottle Column

I started writing this monthly column in Quick Throttle Northwest a little over six years ago -- more than 75 columns. I'm amazed I've lasted that long and that my publisher and readers haven't grown tired of me. In all that time they have used the same header and photo -- with the picture of me glowering down at the reader like the Wizard of Oz glowered down at Dorothy, but without the flames coming off my head.  Well in honor of the new year and of my years writing every month as well as my relocating to sunny climes with a more sunny outlook on life (try not to laugh at that), we decided to revamp the column with a new photo.  A somewhat more "smiling" me sitting on Angus in a field of flowers. So as I unwind from the holidays and the contractors are digging out the hole for the pool in my backyard, and I start writing my February column -- while my former colleagues all head back to the opening of the Washington State Legislature in a massive snow storm in Olympia, I'll post the January column, which goes into my struggles to become a Californian....
Well here we are again, the start of brand new year. We toss out last year’s calendar and start with a brand new blank one. A little over six years ago I started writing this column for Quick Throttle. The idea was to cover political and policy ideas affecting riders in the Northwest as well as talk about the joys of riding and being part of this amazing community.  Now, nearly 75 columns later I’m still here.  Well most of the time I’m here, and so we figured it was time to give this column a new look.

As many of you know I retired from the political and lobbying world at the end of 2013 and have been spending the winter months in Palm Springs and the rest of the year in Seattle.  My official legal home has until now been Washington. But that has changed, and as of this new year I’m officially a newbie “Californian.”  I’ll be doing the reverse “snowbird” thing – spending most of the year in the desert and escaping to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest in the summer when it’s 125 degrees here, and visiting often too. But don’t worry, I’ll still be the grumpy curmudgeon, freely offering up news and advice about politics and riding in Washington and the Northwest, I’m not going away.

So why the change in residency? One reason is it’s also gotten damn expensive in Seattle, as you all know, and there is no sign of that changing. Here’s a great case in point: I surprised the clerk at the DMV here in California when I went to register the vehicles and she told me the total for my registration and plates and I said “Are you sure?” and she said “yes, we are a bit more expensive than other states, people are often shocked.” I laughed and told her to turn over the old Washington registration she had in her hands for my Hummer and look at that total. Her eyes about popped out of her head and she said “wow”. My California registration for my truck was about 1/3 of what I paid in Washington, with better roads and less traffic.

But it’s not all sunshine when it comes to becoming an official resident of the Golden State.  I had to take the written exam for both vehicles and motorcycles in order to get a new drivers license. So like I good citizen I picked up a copy of the handbook for both vehicles and motorcycles and took them home and read them – twice.  I took the practice tests in the back and passed and then made my appointment for the test (a cool feature here by the way so you don’t have to wait hours in a waiting room).

You know these tests. I swear they are designed to get you to fail by asking tricky questions where all the answers are partially right, and only one is more partially right than the others. The system instantly tells you if you got a question wrong. You are allowed three wrong answers and the fourth kicks you out with a FAIL! and a big red “X” like on a game show only without the loud buzzer.

I got a perfect score of 30 out of 30 on the driver license part, and so it was on to the motorcycle test. I figured I’d ace this since I did so well on the other one. I’ve been riding since before I could drive, and I consider myself a damn good rider. I’ve taken the advanced riders course several times. I taught group riding skills for HOG. I think I know what I’m doing. Well, not according to the folks at California DMV. Apparently I don’t know squat!  I missed four questions and I wasn’t even half-way done!  Shocked I went to the counter and the clerk asked if I wanted an immediate retest. One is allowed three attempts at the test before failing. Since my Washington one expired in less than a month I had to pass and soon. My pride got the best of me and I said “Yes!” and immediately went back in and failed yet again!  How could this be?  I passed the drivers test flawlessly and here I can’t pass the damn motorcycle part?

I mean really?  I failed!  Twice! Me! The clerk said you have one more chance and I said, I’ll reschedule and left with my tail between my legs.  For a week I would read the manual cover to cover each night before bed. Hell I practically memorized it.  A week later I go back and get the same clerk. “Last try,” she said with a smile. Gee thanks for the pressure I thought. I went in. I carefully and methodically thought out each question and possible reply. I nervously chose my answer and each time before I submitted the answer I genuflected, prayed and crossed my fingers, and I’m an agnostic! Things were going along fine but then I missed two in a row. I was starting to panic. Then I get to this question:

“The best way to avoid injury while riding is: A) ride in a fast straight line. B) Ride defensively using the SEE method. C) Be aware of the road and traffic conditions and adjust riding speed accordingly. D) Wear a helmet.”

The more logical answer to me was B: “Ride defensively using the SEE method.” But nooooooo according to the State of California, best way to avoid injury while riding is “D) Wear a helmet.” I got the big red “X” on my screen.  That was my third miss.  If I missed one more I failed and couldn’t retest for 60 days and would have an expired Washington license in my pocket. The cuss words floating in the air above my head in my cartoon thought bubble were many.  I plodded on and three questions later I get a “Congratulations You Have Passed” notice.

I almost fainted from relief.  And it doesn’t matter in the end what I missed and why. I know I’m a good rider, and I have the license in my wallet to make it all legal.  But oh good Lord I hope I don’t have to take that test ever again.  And to my friends in ABATE, who I’ve occasionally managed to tick off over the years, I have an idea for a bill in California for your CA chapter to get working on.  It has to do with the motorcycle license test and a certain question…

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com

Rollin' Home

A long road trip to the hometowns and the love and warmth of family and old friends never seems to last long enough. This past weekend the last task of this trip -- a long loop up from the desert to Portland then Seattle, then down to Boise and Salt Lake -- was accomplished, hanging up some 24 of my prints at the Rio Grande Cafe gallery in the historic old train station in downtown SLC. This is my second year having a show here the month of January -- in a space that means a lot to me personally. This old station was one of my haunts as a teenager, watching the comings and goings of the old Rio Grande Zephyr, and eating in what was the Rio Grande Coffee Shop where my photographs now hang. After that it was time to think about heading home. Wednesday seemed to be a good day to go -- traffic would be light and the weather more or less good.
But by Tuesday the weather forecasters on Salt Lake's TV stations were all predicting a dire storm to blow in on Wednesday.  My Mother, in her Motherly wisdom, said I should "think about leaving" on Tuesday to beat the storm. But I wasn't ready to leave Salt Lake just yet, and I know me and my truck's capabilities, so I declined. Waking up Wednesday morning I'd anticipated an inch or two of new snow, but instead it was 45 degrees and a warm southerly wind was blowing in and had pushed out the pollution trapped by the inversion. So much for the uber excited weather forecasters on TV.

It's a long drive back to the desert from Salt Lake -- generally broken up into two chunks with an overnight in St. George, Utah or Las Vegas. This time I had company, as Eric had decided to fly up after Christmas and drive back with me. Mom tried to keep a dry eye as we left, but as usual she couldn't quite, and she and Ron waved goodbye from the garage as we backed down her driveway and headed towards the Interstate.

The ramp says I-15 South - Las Vegas and we curved up on to the highway and headed due South. The wind was blowing against us and it kept the temperatures above freezing and no sign of a storm all the way down past Provo and Nephi and into the vast empty lands of the Great Basin.

After a couple of hours riding the super slab we needed a stretch and a break so we pulled off in Beaver, about half-way down Utah. This is a town who's billboard on the highway coming in says "Beaver -- Home of the Best Water In Utah" apparently having won some water Academy Award. Beaver has some of my favorite road ghosts and so I had to stop and again photograph them, hoping for another award winning shot or two given the gray and somewhat ominous clouds in the sky.

It's apparent Ron appears to still be gone from "Ron's Chevrolet" on Main Street in Beaver. The ceiling is now caving in, there are cobwebs that are big enough to capture small children inside, and that old Motorcycle is still in the window, some 6 years after I first photographed this place (on the left from 2010), naming the piece "Ron's Gone".
Just down the road from Ron's on Main Street -- the old US-91 -- in Beaver is Arshel's Cafe. I'd passed this place many times before but never gone in, but it was a little after noon and Eric said he could eat. We had our choice between Arshel's and the "Bambi Cafe", and he chose Arshel's. It seemed a little too pink at first glance to me, but it was full of ranch hands and the like sitting inside, all wearing insulated cammo colored gear. One was apparently driving a Prius which they had tried to make a little "sporty" by painting a racing stripe down it, but it was still a Prius and a bit jarring for one of them to be driving while eating in a pink cafe with lacy curtains, but who am I to judge.

Our waitress, an older woman with once blonde hair, said "take a seat anywhere I'll be with you in a minute." She brought over menus, and glasses of "Beaver Water" and pointed out the soup was chicken noodle - "homemade" she added. I settled on that and a BLT minus the mayo, while Eric had a tuna melt.
For some reason Eric and I reminded her of the movie "Hell or High Water" -- I think it was me ordering my BLT without mayo, as she started imitating the waitress in the movie by saying "tell me what you WON'T be having", and laughing about it as she took our order. Later after we'd finished she asked about desert and said, "you will both be having pie" another line from the movie. She brought us peanut-butter chocolate pie and I'm glad she did.

We ambled back out into the not-so-cold parking lot and continued south along Beaver's main drag to two other ghosts that I like to stop at on my way through. At the far south end of town, just before the road curves back and rejoins I-15, off in a field is a charming red-brick building that was either a school house or a home at one time, I'm not sure, and it sits right across from an abandoned 1950s era motel, built around a man-made pond, called the "Sleepy Lagoon". The motel and it's sign are difficult to photograph given the light and the overgrowth, but I pulled off the highway and got out of the truck while Eric waited inside.
Directly across the street from the Sleepy Lagoon, in the middle of a field, is the school house or a home. Generally there are cows milling about or the light has been wrong. In years past the roof has been intact, but this year it's caving in, indicating there isn't much time left for this charming building.
Back in the truck the food from Arshel's had taken it's toll on Eric who had come down with a case of the "itis" and was dozing in the passenger seat while I pursued my artistic endeavors, getting muddy and a bit moody wandering in the snow -- chasing my ghosts of the road while a mangy mutt and some cows chased me. I still don't have a great shot of either of these relics of the highway, but one day I will.
So I settled back in the cab, did my best to not wake Eric while doing a U-turn on the empty road and then headed back to the freeway, rolling southward through the vast empty lands of the Mountain West, headed towards Cedar City, St. George, Las Vegas and then home to the desert -- like a horse heading back to the barn, their warmer temperatures and sunny skies calling me home.