New Orleans, 4/10–4/13

I am going to the Nonprofit Technology Conference, which is not, you Silicon Valley smartass, a contradiction in terms—but rather a mass convening of people trying to do good and people trying to sell them things. On the plane I end up seated in a row with one of each; they’re schmoozing while I stare out the window. “Anytime there’s paper, you know, that’s a chance to disrupt it, with, like, more technology,” says the consultant in the middle seat to the ED in the aisle. “It’s, like, pretty turnkey.”

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From the air I take a remedial geography lesson.

Once on the ground in New Orleans I set out on my own doomed campaign to optimize, simultaneously, for business and pleasure. The only way to even attempt this is by walking fast and a lot, often in dress shoes and often in the dark. It’s is no city for introverts—twice I sit down to eat alone and am presented with two glasses of water—but I do the best I can. Other general observations, from most to least obvious:

  • I suspect that when people say that New Orleans “feels different” from other American cities, up to 50 percent of that sensation is attributable specifically to the lack of an open container law. There are plenty more sober reminders, lately, that we live in warring and disparate feudal states—but still I am dazzled to think that in Utah you have state-controlled liquor outlets, and in Louisiana you have daiquiri drive-throughs, and both accept payment in the same almighty dollar.
  • Perhaps related: there are police everywhere—on foot, in cars, on horses with suitable names like Ace and Duke. Presumably this phenomenon is confined to the tourist and business districts, but casual Googling does indicate New Orleans has almost as many officers per capita as New York City, which is well over twice the rate of Oakland.
  • There are white seashells in the dirt, in the middle of the city, in any old gap in the pavement.
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Maybe Huck Finn had arch support. (Best thing on the river: this.)

On a tip from my first Lyft driver I decide to take a $2 ferry (“cheapest ride in town!”) to Algiers Point. I’m keen on this, to come close to the Mississippi—the muddy water lapping at the shore seems surely steeped with secrets—but the walkway to the terminal is discouraging. The concrete walls are hung with what I understand to be Mardi Gras banners but experience as sinister paintings of insane clowns presiding over the dozing homeless.

I wait at the prison-bar gate until the ferry arrives, then watch the sun set on an abandoned office tower as we chug across the water. On the Algiers side I wander the silent neighborhood by streetlight, peering past wicker porch swings into tidy living rooms filled with hardwood and books. My foodie friends sent me to New Orleans with a 20-item-long list of restaurants to try, but I will tell you my favorite meal is out here, at the Dry Dock Inn. The service is hostile and the food is from the freezer—but a man walks in and begins a conversation with the barkeep by announcing, “I’m just in off the India Star.” I’m enchanted.

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Enchanted also by the cemeteries and the mansions in the Garden District. I freely admit I like looking at expensive things … freely.

Another peculiar place is City Park. At 1,300 acres it’s more than twice the size of its New York City cousin, but as far as I can see—albeit midday and midweek, and albeit from what must be the wrong entrance—much of that is one giant, deserted, flat, and wilting lawn. There are lovely lily-choked lakes, a fancy dog park, playgrounds … however, these are scattered oases in a vast expanse of featureless grass without pathways, trails, or, in places even sidewalks. Hoping to find the famous live oaks I walk for miles in the road until my feet bleed, then sit sweating on the curb trying to improvise Band-Aids from leaves.

Go by bike, is all I’m saying.

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An interesting trio in a free library box. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Of Katrina—in tourist areas, to a tourist’s eye—there is almost no sign. It’s the last day of the conference before I realize I’m sitting in a ballroom that for 25,000 people served as the “shelter of last resort”—the phrase still used to describe it, for some reason, as if at the time it actually constituted either a shelter or a choice.

I was 18 that year, old enough to know better but perhaps young enough to be forgiven for understanding the storm to be what I saw on TV: looters, helicopters, another East Coast thing. When I get home I watch Spike Lee’s take twice through and still feel sorry that it took me so long.

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Winter miscellany, December–March

Yosemite

This annual trip has trended larger and younger lately; there’s a lot of spontaneous group singing. The moment a girl unzips her puffy to reveal a sweatshirt announcing “FEMALE FRIENDSHIP” in white script is the moment I accept that I can’t hang.

I bow out to instead walk 16 miles alone to Glacier Point, watch a super-moon rise over Half Dome. The year flares out in dreamy traces of pink on the twilight, and my sharp lunar shadow follows me all the way back to camp.

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Santa Barbara

There’s a quality to Southern California sunshine that makes it distinctly more difficult to take things seriously.* Massive mudslides in Montecito are washing dead animals onto the beach; regardless, there is a beach. Donations of clothing are accepted only new with tags. I’m just a visitor and so it’s all difficult to reconcile: there is the sprawling emergency-response staging area and the old burn zones across the water; there are the red-tile roofs and crying seagulls over the pier.

In any case, we eat and we ride. Having my friends on knobby tires with slow flats hardly puts a dent in my problem of keeping up, and they’re in sight only when we’re descending. In fact, I watch one of them come with in inches of being hit by an (at-fault) car on Gibraltar. As with his last near miss, I have a clearer view of his actual proximity to disaster in that moment than he could ever have himself—but in this sunshine, at least, there is warmth enough to convert the horror of that split second to an afterglow of fierce relief.

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* A must-read, if you’re interested in this particular superstition: Carey McWilliams, An Island on the Land

Angel Island

It’s ridiculous that I’ve never been here before. Angel Island is every bit of professional park propaganda I’ve ever written balled up in a beautiful rock: transit-accessible, urban-adjacent, family-friendly, and best of all, Historically Problematic. It has ruins, vultures, flowers—all my favorite things—and it puts the city on the skyline, where I like it.

It is also, as a consequence, insanely difficult to book. So here I am with the Golden Gate Bridge framed in my tent door, all because I have a friend who is six to eight months better than me at planning ahead. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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Points south, 11/17–11/20

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Karl has nothing on the fog over the Grapevine: I can see only the first set of brake lights in front of me, barely, and those only when they’re on. The radio’s in and out. It’s fraught and eerie on the inside, but later on I’ll look down on the same sea of white from a deserted campground on Mt. Pinos and feel like I’m on an island in the sky.

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The same could be said of the Getty.

I’m in Pasadena to visit my oldest friend, whose toddler and I have in common a skeptical countenance and a wild enthusiasm for dogs. She dozes through most of our hike up Echo Mountain: after setting out on the wrong side of a culvert there is only the briefest consideration given to backtracking before instead we hoist her, still sleeping, over the fence. I believe this is called raising them right.

My friend’s parents have also moved south. Their new home is a topsy-turvy world in which the fort-making furniture of our own childhood has been rearranged in space and time: where the rooms overlook an ocean instead of a swimming pool; when she’s a mother and not a child. We find a camcorder and screen our ’90s-era home movies,  Python-esque productions that shake with the director’s laughter. We watch our younger selves play games of Hot Lava and Lost Kids.

The overall effect—and can you blame me? On a warm beach in a soft blue morning? Watching a school of actual dolphins?—is one of vertiginous gratitude and loss, of my heart in my mouth.

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“And thank you, every day.”

NW New Mexico, 10/18–10/22—part 1

Through some glitch in the matrix it’s cheapest to fly in to Albuquerque one day and rent a car the next, even with the addition of a motel stay in between. I check in with a Dolly Parton look-alike, but the proprietor named on the wall plaque behind her is a Patel. In the nightstand drawer there’s the Holy Bible but also the Bhagavad Gita. Neither converts me but I’m pleased to have a choice.

At the buffet breakfast the next morning a tiny woman cooks eggs on a hotplate concealed behind a speaker’s lectern. People line up as if to receive communion; when she’s served them all and stands alone surveying the card tables she looks to be presiding over a summit. The eggs are pretty good, too.

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I rent a bike and ride three trail Santa Fe trail systems over the course of the trip. At La Tierra the locals have packed a lot of trail into small acreage, complex spiderwebs threading through the arroyos and dozens of numbered intersections. Dale Ball meanwhile has the advantage of some rock and terrain, which in combination with the altitude means I am repeatedly passed by shirtless, geriatric trail runners. Retirement looks nice.

The Santa Fe showpiece is the Winsor trail, which a friend has told me is possible to self-shuttle with $5 public transit. I’m so astounded to find this is actually a thing that the bus has pulled away before I fully register where it’s left me: at 10,000 feet, with a bite in the air and granite under my tires. This trail is significantly more technical and more remote than I would generally choose to ride for the first time alone. I pick my way down very slowly, forcing myself to come to a complete stop before ogling aspens.

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That night I find myself back on the mountain for my absolute least favorite solo-road-trip activity: hunting for a campsite after dark. There are no open spots until a cluster of walk-ins just below the pass, where after a restless night of gasping flatlander nightmares I wake to the sound of an older woman lecturing a dog.

Max is a muddy-pawed Norwich terrier who for some reason, when I unzip the door, is permitted to run directly into my tent. “Oh, sorry,” says the woman. I can see only her legs but these are making no move at all to retrieve her charge. “Did you stay here by yourself? How marvelous! Weren’t you cold? I’ve always wondered about camping.”

“It’s not so bad,” I say, extracting Max from my sleeping bag. I’m not sure I’m awake. I’ve been in Santa Fe less than 24 hours and this is the third slightly strange interaction I’ve had with an older woman walking a dog. The first stopped me on the sidewalk for help restarting her iPhone. The second asked me where I was from and when I told her exclaimed, “Oh goodness! It’s terrible there!” At the time I thought she might be referring to the Sonoma fires, but in retrospect that’s probably not what she meant.

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Santa Fe is zealously committed to its adobe architecture. San Miguel Chapel, the oldest in the country, does not look all that different from the five-star hotel across the street.

I don’t vacation internationally mostly because I don’t have time. But also because, when I think of the places I can afford to go, I’m put off by the reasons I can afford to go there. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to rent a Thai beach hut—in fact at this point it may be the most useful thing anyone can do—but it’s uncomfortable if you think about it too hard, which of course being me I can’t help doing. It may be cowardice to turn away from that discomfort, but it’s a choice I have and so I fly domestic.

But as I sit on the steps of the old chapel, watching a high-heeled tourist remove the price tag from a dream-catcher, I am reminded there in fact is no avoiding it. There are academic terms to try on when we discuss the endless echoes of our violence to each other—racism or capitalism or colonialism or, or—but in truth none is adequate for the enormity of it, inherent and inescapable and inexpressible, every one of us subject and object, forever and ever, Amen. There is no idea like that but sin. I don’t believe in God but I believe in language, and I suspect that word may be as close to the truth as anyone will ever write.

Ogden, Park City, Salt Lake City, 7/22–7/26

Planes, trains, and automobiles; cowboys and Indians; fire and rain

Planes

 

Outside the Ogden Air Force Base museum the planes stand serene against the hazy backdrop of the Wasatch, casting their own shade. Inside there are more—old bombers painted with pin-up girls and little Hitlers in crosshairs—and also a replica of a North Korean POW cell, complete with mad-eyed mannequins in bunks behind bars.

The placard includes a photo of three graduating seniors from the University of San Francisco. They’re sitting around a radio, listening for their draft numbers. One vaguely resembles an old classmate of mine. It’s not that I’ve never thought about this—that there was a time when men in my life would have been called away to die—it’s just that I’ve never thought about it while standing completely alone in a 28,000-square-foot aircraft hangar, citizen and subject of a commander-in-chief who Tweets in all-caps.

We could have fighter jets without the fighting, you know. There is no rule against this; we only have to decide that’s what we want.

Trains

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The railroad museum is closed but there are a few big steam engines under a pavilion outside. I’m inhaling creosote and running my hands over rivets in a pleasant state of foamer reverence when two large families enter from the other end of the walkway.

The kids scatter and the parents lean on the railing in the shade. “There used to be a train like this at the park,” remarks one woman, “but they got rid of it after a little girl fell off the top and died.” Jesus, I think.

“It was so sad,” she continues, wistfully. “I loved that train.”

Automobiles 

The little Chevy I rented is black. It’s so hot out that I burn my hand opening the trunk.

I return the car when I get to Salt Lake City—to save some cash, I mean, not because of my hand—and use Lyft. My first driver is from Ethiopia and works with refugees. I tell him about my job and he replies that in his past life he did something similar, as a reporter for Boeing’s corporate magazine. It was the ’80s; he wore a cologne called Editor. “You know,” he says, “to cover up the stink.” We have a good laugh about this.

My last driver is saving up to skip town. She tells me her family disowned her for leaving the Mormon Church. “You can’t escape LDS in this city,” she says. “I just want to go somewhere I can be me.”

The only thing I don’t love about where I live is sharing it, the attendant inconveniences of crowding in with millions of others who wouldn’t belong anywhere else. “Come to California,” I say anyway, and mean it. “California would love to have you.”

Cowboys

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At the rodeo:

  • Paragliders descend into the arena bearing the Utah and U.S. flags.
  • Breast cancer survivors release pink-dyed doves from a dozen plastic pet carriers.
  • A woman in a fuschia jumpsuit enters the ring on a pair of white horses, one foot on the back of each. She’s holding another American flag, this one on a pole with fireworks shooting out the top. After a few laps at a casual gallop they start jumping barrels that the rodeo clown has doused in lighter fluid and set on fire.
  • There are several rounds of mutton-busting, an event in which one deposits a small child on the back of a sheep, sets the sheep loose in an arena, and incites a thousand people to scream at it until the child falls off. On the Jumbotron the six-year-old winner is asked if he’d like to go again and replies flatly, “No.”
  • Horseback musical chairs is won by a six-foot-something man strategically mounted on a Shetland pony.
  • A woman is pulled “randomly” from the crowd to remove the rodeo clown’s pants with a bullwhip.

Everything about this is gaudy and absurd; it seems to lack any sense of irony. It’s awesome; it’s pure; I love it. It’s the most American thing I’ve ever seen.

Indians

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It’s Pioneer Day. I’m in Salt Lake City for Outdoor Retailer, which could be characterized as a convening of businesses that profit from public land. Either because of or despite this, depending on how you look at it, the trade show is leaving Utah in protest over the administration’s threats to the state’s newest national monuments, which contain indigenous religious sites, rock climbing, and uranium.

Not so far away is another convention, a pow-wow in a screened-off section of Liberty Park. Before this was public land it belonged to Brigham Young, who presumably took it from the Shoshone or the Ute. Now legally it’s mine as much as either his or theirs. There’s an argument to be made that this is more democratic. There’s an argument to be made it is unjust.

Those are the facts at hand but from all of them, and the flash and whirl of the fancy dancers, and the rise and fall of the elders’ chant, I’m unable to make any sense. There’s only a fog in my head and stomach, abstractions and static—ownership and inheritance and freedom and loss. It’s all significance and no relevance. It’s pulsing with the drums.

Laugh all you like, but until this moment it’s possible I didn’t fully grasp what other people mean when they refer to feeling. I’m not saying, exactly, that I understand an emotion only as the the animal chaos that precedes a thought. But when you live in language you have to wonder what it is, this antecedent. More honest? Less true?

Fire

I’ve only just reached the ridgeline when the storm breaks, in long, steady rolls of thunder I can feel in my ribs. A group of guys who passed me on the climb reappears going the opposite direction. “Time to go!” one shouts.

In all my outdoor pursuits I am accompanied by a continuous film reel of unwelcome scenarios. I’m going to get injured or lost; I’m going to run out of food, water, fuel, or daylight; I will encounter a mountain lion or a swarm of bees or a serial killer; I’ll break a shoelace, trespass on a pot farm, die slowly of appendicitis. There is literally one hazard I worry about less that other people, for some reason, and it’s lightning. This has always been the case, and sure enough as the steel-cast sky flares bright again I feel nothing but a mild interest in seeing more.

“Are you coming down?” The last rider has stopped and is looking over his shoulder at me.

“I’m going to wait for it to—”

BOOM

“No way. Listen, I’m a professional guide and I’m telling you to —”

B-BOOM

“Get off the mountain!”

” I think I’ll just—”

“Let’s go! You’re coming with us!”

I’m impressed by his intensity so I follow him. The fine dust of ten minutes ago has liquified to treacherous grease in the downpour. I’m going to eat shit on those tree roots, I think, and I do.

Rain

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I’m lost and pushing my bike up what the rest of the year is probably a double-black ski run. The first people I see to ask directions are a pair of retirees hiking hand in hand. In addition to their respective favorite routes back to town (he likes wildflowers, she goes for views) they have a variety of other advice for me, some items less actionable than others. Buy property, they tell me, retire early. Hike with trekking poles. Marry your best friend. Dance in the rain.

Minneapolis, 6/4–4/2

In Minneapolis the bus shelters face away from the street. This seems strange but presumably has something to do with snow, which I know nothing about. A few stops after I board the doors open to admit a half-dozen people with white canes, some of whom are having a truly inane conversation about what, hypothetically, they would like for breakfast.

“Well I don’t have any sausage today, so how about bacon?” “Bacon is fine. “I like it a little bit crunchy.” “How about grits?” This goes on for the next eight stops. I cannot determine if they’re trolling, cognitively impaired, or engaged in an entirely normal Midwestern conversation, and as I’m straining to work it out I realize I’ve been in almost this exact situation before. Perhaps I’m impaired. I don’t know.

Related: one of the blind women is very beautiful but conceivably not aware of this, an idea I find no less romantic for being unoriginal.


Wandering around by myself, per usual, I’m also having a hard time discerning bad neighborhoods from good ones, because they all have green trees and large yards. The freeways and river –rivers?— seem to be everywhere at once; there is nothing on the horizon; the U of M campus, where I’m staying for a conference, is on both sides of the water and all its buildings look the same. It’s disorienting.

In the bike shop, by contrast, I have the very familiar experience of standing in silence for five minutes before any of the four men at the counter acknowledge my existence—a rental rite long since passed from a source of irritation into a sort of anthropological study. When I am eventually allowed to leave with a bicycle I ride it to Theodore Wirth, which is what Golden Gate Park could be if San Francisco wasn’t. The trails are a little contrived and the locals are taking it too seriously, but nonetheless it’s a hell of thing to have in a city park. I ride the best trail last and then I do it again.

I’m across the street from the lightrail platform later that week when a girl gets mugged. I hear her scream and have an impression of her lying fetal on the ground with her eyes shut, a detail surely fabricated as I was too far away to see. The trio of young men who attacked her disappear up a steep lawn into the night. “We see you!” shouts a bystander, as if that matters. Back in our Cold War-era dorms the violence of the scene causes me to interpret the stains on the curtains as blood.

This is discouraging but I wander anyway, hit the parks, library, a museum, a climbing gym, my new-city stations of the cross. In the end the most dangerous thing I encounter is a grilled cheese sandwich with walnuts in it. Fuck.

On the way to the airport at the end of the week I ask the driver about his worst passengers—I always do this—and he unhesitatingly cites, “the low-income people, the diversity people.” I am literally in the middle of reading an article on “racial imposter syndrome” and make neutral noises from the backseat, trying to remember how brown I look or don’t look in my Lyft profile photo. It transpires that his actual objection is to mothers with very young children and no car seats, who scream at him when he declines, as his legal obligation, to drive without them. I wonder—but not really—why he couldn’t have just said that.

Compared to home the city seems less diverse but also less segregated. Somalis are everywhere, mothers and daughters gliding along the ground in jilbaab. I won’t pretend I don’t think of Dune and I won’t pretend not to find it unsettling; in truth to me there is something alien about any child who looks identical to its parent. But what does it matter, in the scheme of things? What is the rum luck of watching your neighborhood become Somali in comparison to the rum luck of watching your neighborhood become a war zone?

On the bus two laughing teenage girls had boarded from the back, shoving and yelling at each other in Somali. They sat behind an old man in a gold kameez and gleaming crocodile wingtips, his leathery forehead wrinkled beneath an embroidered skullcap. He grimaced for a few stops, then turned and shushed them gently. After that they quieted down. They might have listened or they might just have been done shouting, who can say.

Three trips to Oregon with snow

Ashland, 11/18–11/20

I think the chamber of commerce here could use an angle other than Shakespeare. I want to sell them on selling themselves as the halfway point between San Francisco and Portland, a distinction I assume to be relevant to more abandoned Bay Area holdouts than just me.

I’m waiting for the Portland end of the bargain inside a nominally Bard-themed motel room, eating pizza and watching George Clooney rock a mockneck in The Perfect Storm. Past a certain hour I can’t separate the sound of the weather on TNT and outside the window, can’t be entirely sure the bed’s not listing to starboard. I turn on all the lights.

On the trails over the weekend the rain is snow that balls up in my not-so-fat bike’s rear triangle every hundred yards. I do a lot of walking and pushing, stamping my feet and biting my tongue. The Person Whose Idea It Was to go this way very wisely drives down from mid-mountain alone so I can ride one more descent, snow-free. Whether this is intended as a magnanimous gesture or just to avoid having me drive his truck, I’m not sure—but I’ll take it.

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A detour to “see” Crater Lake. “Good thing you have four-wheel drive,” he says as we pass a Prius in a ditch. “Wait, I do?” “Wait, you don’t?”

Portland, 12/15–12/18

As with anywhere else I ever visit I’m in Portland in part to determine if it’s somewhere I could move. But in its long northern twilight and coat of dirty ice the city is not putting its best face forward. It’s not so cold, but it’s cold enough it hurts.

I did not grow up with any real winter; my earliest reference points lay through the wardrobe to Narnia and so even now I associate snow with a sort of sorcery or bewitchment. At the waterfalls in the gorge the spell is cast and spattered in white on bridges, branches, cave mouths, columns of basalt.

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White Witch was here

For indoor amusements we visit the railroad museum: he discusses torque with retirees while I watch safety videos from the ’80s, rapt and mouthing cautionary mnemonics. At an indoor bike park called the Lumberyard I prove myself uncoachable and discover, by taking the bus, where the city has hidden its minorities. (Out by the airport, if you were wondering.)

A Portland phenomenon slightly easier to get behind is combination bike/coffee shops. On the way to one we pass a golden retriever in a Christmas scarf, which I smile at—do dogs know when you smile at them?—and then forget. But when I open the door to the café a few blocks later it is onto a room full of dogs; they are everywhere, among vintage bikes and in baubled sweaters, tussling on the floor in felt antlers, tongues lolling over jingle-belled collars and leashes wound with tinsel. I’m tired and surprised and so all I can do is start crying. “Jesus Christ,” mutters my tour guide. “Santa!” I sob. Owners and dogs are lining up to get their picture taken with him. (Not Him.) There’s a pug on his lap.

Corvallis-ish, 12/15–12/18

What I’d generally say about a lot of Oregon at this point is, it’s alright but the trees get in the way of things. I prefer a forest from some distance above it: I like the plumes of mist that snake out of the canopy, the reassurance that the planet’s still alive. But when actually in the woods I tend to want to get out of them. To hike for an hour without a sightline makes me itchy and eventually anxious for the sky.

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Lumberjack gym

Fortunately there’s also an air and space museum. It has an IMAX theater, for fighter-jet movies, and a goddamn water park—which you can enter via twisty slide inside the 747 that’s parked on the roof. The adjacent hanger contains, among other things, the actual Spruce Goose. One wing is cross-sectioned so you can see that it’s full of beach balls, sweartagawd.

This plane is so large it defies pano mode, cannot be taken in in its entirety from any single point in the building. I’m interested in this but not, unfortunately, in my friend’s explanation of how the engines work. There is a flight simulator, which he can operate instantly and intuitively. I demand a turn and crash over and over into the virtual runway—sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.