Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Do it yours elf

Kreacher feature
Beloved Wife's Volkswagen is now five years old. When it was under warranty, the window winder motors needed to be replaced and Al Naboodah did so with a minimum of fuss. But shortly thereafter I noticed a bolt occasionally poked out of the passenger door drain hole. Clearly someone had dropped a bolt into the door's innards, or something had come loose.

So next service, I mentioned it and asked that the loose bolt be found, removed and, if it had fallen out of part of the door, replaced. No such thing happened.

A single bolt rattling around is of no real consequence and both Beloved Wife and I simply ignored the problem. However, over the last year or so the rattling got worse. I noticed it particularly after returning from a year in Qatar. According to Beloved Wife, the mechanics at Al Naboodah recognised that there was rattling as of loose mechanicals in the passenger side door, but either could not or would not do anything about it.

As I'm "resting between jobs" as out-of-work actors say, I currently have the time to deal with matters domestic. Beloved Wife insists that I'm not her house-elf.

I took the car door to bits this morning. As soon as I'd prised the inner skin away, three M6 bolts fell on to the ground. Further dismantling revealed that the dozen or so M6 bolts that are supposed to attach the frame holding the window motor to the door chassis were either missing, on the ground, or loose. I was able to retrieve all sorts of metal fastenings from inside the door, including all of the missing bolts.

I reattached the innards and tightened the bolts; something that a qualified VW mechanic had evidently failed to do. I also replaced the broken window winder switch, which was the original reason for pulling the door to bits.

And now everything works and nothing rattles. Why this relatively minor task was so impossible over at Dubai's Volkswagen agency remains a mystery.

And pleased with my success, I'm to spend this afternoon assembling Swedish furniture.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

From caprine to cervine

My Blog List includes a web diary set on a tiny goat farm in Washington State. I’ve been following this charming, sometimes hilarious and occasionally poignant blog for a couple of years, and Beloved Wife suggested that perhaps we should visit. "You know you want to." 

It was one of those ‘chance of a lifetime’ opportunities. We were already on the Pacific coast of the United States and heading north towards Seattle.

An evening of on-line research zoomed in on more-or-less the area, and Google Street View gave me a pretty good idea of what the ZIP code actually looked like. The alleged location was given to Clarissa, and we set off.

A bonus was to cross the Tacoma Narrows. There are now two bridges there. This is the site of the famous “Gallopin’Gertie”, the first suspension bridge constructed over the Narrows. Its fame, or rather, infamy comes from the way in which the bridge deck behaved in windy conditions, and ultimately brought about the structure’s collapse in November 1940, barely four months after completion. Salutory lesson for civil engineers 101.

The new bridges are wider and were designed to resist aerofoil effects.

Tacoma Narrows: Westbound is free; Eastbound costs around five  bucks.
Anyway, the Key Peninsula is a beautiful as I’d anticipated. The geography of the area is a complex layout of peninsulas and islands, and if I lived here I’d own a boat in a heartbeat. There are so many inlets and coves to explore without having to venture into the Big Wide Ocean.

Waterfront properties on the Key Peninsula 
Clarissa, clever black box that she is, led us directly to Herron Hill Dairy. The sign on the gate was a bit of a giveaway. We drove into the yard and I introduced us to the Goatfarmer. She’s the one who types “This Goat’s Life” because the actual author has keyboard/cloven hoof interface trouble. After friendly introductions and chat, Beloved Wife and I were introduced to the herd. Everyone was hiding languidly in the shade. Apparently, this part of Washington hadn’t seen a spot of rain in over a month and the high temperatures were becoming irksome. The goats seemed pleased to see us, even though we had quite by accident failed to bring any ginger biscuits – apparently a caprine favourite.

No ginger biscuits, I'm afraid.
Beloved Wife is now convinced that goats do not necessarily stink to high heaven. The small ones at least are wonderfully cute. Check out the minuscule Crumpet, the Most Famous Goat in the World. I have, in front of witnesses including the Goatfarmer, been granted full and irrevocable permission to keep “three small goats” when we finally get to Cyprus. This always was the plan, but Beloved Wife’s concerns regarding the delicate aroma of capric acid have now been proved unfounded.

La Manchas have only vestigial ears
The minuscule Crumpet, the Most Famous Goat in the World
A big thank you to the Goatfarmer for her hospitality, and also for the great honking slab of goat halloumi that we fried in butter and lemon juice a couple of days later. It was most excellent. And thanks to the herd for not misbehaving in a manner that would have put Beloved Wife off goats for all eternity. I was relying on you!

At Herron Hill, all the goats are de-horned. But they still headbutt.
Just for grins
After we’d wasted enough of the Goatfarmer’s time, we said our thanks and goodbyes and headed off towards Seattle. Clarissa mysteriously sent us further north than I’d been expecting. As we rolled up to the kiosk to pay our ferry fare, the woman taking the money remarked, “Navigating with GPS, eh?”

How did she guess? We didn’t care; an hour or so taking in the sea air made a refreshing change from being cooped up in an air-conditioned box.

Car ferry. Seattle is behind that ridge.
It’s always useful to have a target, and my target was the Utilikilts shop in Seattle. According to the website, this would be found at 620 First Avenue. But there was a huge gap in the numbering and the target area was full of Seattle Mariners’ stadium. Worse, there was a match on, and all parking was from $30 and upwards. No, there wasn’t any discount for visitors from out of town who weren’t interested in baseball. (I had to look that up, having no idea which ball game to mention). After an unscheduled exploration of the hills of Seattle, we discovered that the rounders pitch was on First Avenue South, and we’d been looking in the wrong place. Thereafter, things started looking up, starting with covered parking for $5 only two blocks away from the kilt shop.

Gentlemen's outfitter, with free beer if you ask nicely.
I only wanted to grab some more business cards and possibly a new belt, but the shop staff and mostly Beloved Wife rather encouraged me in the direction of a new kilt. Happy Birthday, Mr Goat. Seems my existing one has stretched with wear somewhat, and I needed to get a slightly bigger version. I got my new belt too. Very fortunately, I remembered something from the website about sharing a beer. When I invoked the offer, they had one beer left, so we shared it. 

The afternoon was wearing on, and Beloved Wife wanted to visit Pike Place Market which was about six blocks up the road. By the time we got there most of the market stalls were clearing up for the day, which was an unfortunate side-effect of driving all over Creation, visiting goats and looking at kilts. Ah, but a small shop selling kitchen porn was able to supply the doughnut cookie cutters that Beloved Wife had been searching for.

Pike Place.
Seattle: The docks and the stadium.
The allure of Japanese food beckoned us into the world’s seediest-looking café. The guy behind the counter, who could have been George Takei’s twin brother, welcomed us in and we were served flame-grilled meat in Japanese teryaki sauce on a bed of rice for almost no money. It was possibly the best meal we had in the States, in the nastiest café with the most primaeval toilets.

Seattle: Old and new.
Seattle street. Everyone must have gone to the ball game,
We recovered the car from the now locked underground parking by visiting a nearby bar as advised by the sign, and obtaining the passcode. Then we made our escape from Seattle before the ball game finished and 100,000 sports-fan motorists vomited forth on to the highway. Heading east along the I-90 through the picturesque Cascade mountain range, we enjoyed the breathtaking scenery. In the winter, of course, the road would impassable without all wheel drive and snow chains. 

What of the 'cervine' bit in the title? Hadn't we had enough of cloven-hoofed ruminants for one day? Apparently not: seventy or so miles east, and in the dark, Muggins hit a deer. Our best guess is that it was standing in the middle of the road looking at the oncoming headlights and didn’t see or hear the Dad Car sneaking up behind at 25 miles per hour. Bambi ran into the Toyota, left a dent, and then scampered off into the woods. Dang!


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Good news, everyone*

Original artwork: Carlos Lopez
Traffic violations earn both fines and Black Points in the UAE, with the number of Black Points dependent on the severity of the offence. For extreme offences such as racing on the highway or having a loud exhaust, vehicle impounding is an available weapon in the Police's armoury in the constant war on bad driving.

Today's 7DAYS newspaper carries a headline story that the head of Dubai Police has proposed a scheme involving White Points that can be used to clear Black Points. A carrot as well as the traditional stick.

What a marvellous thing! The Goat will collect a White Point for every month he manages not to get caught committing a traffic offence, and at the end of a year these twelve White Points may be used to pay a traffic fine, or release an impounded vehicle, or wipe away up to 12 Black Points. (These disappear after six months anyway, as far as the Goat knows. He once received a couple of Black Points for making an illegal U-turn in Sharjah, but by the time the Goatmobile was next up for registration those points had vanished.)

The Points Make Prizes bit is that the White Points may be exchanged for shopping vouchers, and drivers who manage five years without [being convicted of] a single traffic offence will be entered into a raffle to win a new car. The Goat idly speculates on how many drivers will keep their noses clean all year and then go on a single annual speedathon. None, of course; they'll all be wanting those vouchers. The newspaper doesn't say what the vouchers will be worth, but to make it financially worthwhile they should exceed AED600: the cost of a basic speeding ticket.

* The bad news is that the rewards scheme only applies to Dubai licence holders owning vehicles registered in Dubai.


Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Go west, young Goat!

I promise that this is the last blog post about motorbikes for a while. We did plenty of other stuff on our road trip, and I’ll be writing about that in the next few posts. But for now, it’s motorbikes and things that might be of interest to bikers.

One of my ongoing quests has been to obtain some motorbike leathers. My first foray into this minefield of futility started and finished in December 2011 when I discovered that, at least in the south-eastern USA, what I want is apparently Not Coming In America.

However, despite most of the bikes we encountered in and around Deal’s Gap being cruisers, there were plenty of sporty rice burners too, and even some folk wearing the sort of stuff that I’ve been trying to obtain. So it must be available somewhere.

And so it was that after crossing the Mississippi into Arkansas and then into Oklahoma, our plans to get to Santa Fe by nightfall were thwarted first by the Oklahoma City Outlet Mall for Beloved Wife’s benefit, and then by the local Kawasaki agent for mine. Both visits were ultimately unsuccessful, unless you count a small packet of re-usable push pins to replace the ones that I lose into my bike’s innards every time I take the plastic off. We also missed Little Rock and its famous attraction, according to the guide book: “Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo.”

We hit the very famous US-66 near Clinton, Oklahoma, and stopped off at the Route 66 Museum for interest’s sake, nostalgia, souvenirs, and to pick up a route map so that we could locate what remains of the Mother Road.

Museum, just as the sign says
One of the original pioneers
Most of the original Route 66 has been covered by the interstate, but a bit of clever navigation, Clarissa the GPS, maps and pure dumb luck enabled us to find and drive on several sections. Route 66 is more of an idea than merely a road. Many people went west to California, including Beloved Wife’s grandparents, because of the Oklahoma dustbowl of the 1930s, and it seems all guidebooks follow the route from Chicago to Los Angeles rather than the other direction.

Ghost town
Parts of Route 66 remain, passing through virtual ghost towns now bypassed by the I-40, other sections have been downgraded to service roads parallel to the I-40, and there are sections that have completely disappeared. It all gets a bit scary when there are no gas stations for many, many miles on the interstate, and only derelict and long-forgotten stations in these ghost towns. Dead petrol pumps stare out like sentries, waiting silently for customers who will never return. The only sound is that of sheet-metal signs banging in the wind.

Old gas station, but no gas
No gas here either
Nor here
Huge sighs of relief all around when we finally found a real, live gas station in McLean, Texas.

Route 66 used to loop north to Santa Fe and back south again to the I-40. That section, the Historic Route 66 was bypassed way back in 1937.

I’ll come back to Santa Fe, but for now, I’m moving west to Cambria in California and turning north on to the US-1 Pacific Coast Highway. I’ve never even seen the Pacific Ocean before. Paddling in it was going to have to wait, because of cliffs and fences, but we did get to stop and photograph some elephant seals. Eventually I got my paddle in Monterey Bay. It was freezing cold and the beach stank of rotting kelp. But that’s OK: there’s a lot more to the US Pacific coast than a bit of beach.

Elephant seals
The Pacific Ocean is freezing cold
The guidebook notes that there’s no way off the US-1 except at the ends and, as a result, gas stations are few and are expensive. This would have been a problem on a motorbike with a tiny teardrop tank; less so in the Dad Car that we’d just filled to the brim. Temperatures dropped suddenly as we hit the coast road, from around 25C in the San Fernando Valley to around 15C. Hence the fog rolling in from the sea, ruining the visibility. At least it didn’t make the roads wet. I observed repeatedly to Beloved Wife how the Pacific Coast Highway would be more fun on a motorbike or in an open-top car. There were plenty of both, and at one point we encountered an organised group of classic Volkswagens heading south to a VW rally in San Diego

Classic Volkswagens heading south
We stopped for an expensive and over-rated lunch and were relieved not to have to pay nearly $7 for a gallon of fuel.
Pit stop on Big Sur
Part of the highway is named Big Sur, and is hailed as one of the most interesting drivers’ roads in the country. I’m not going to argue with that point. But next time, I really do want to do it on a motorbike.

Scenery on Big Sur
We mistimed our arrival at San Francisco to coincide with the rush hour, and got trapped for an hour in the traffic queuing to get over the immense Oakland Bay Bridge. Having met up with one of Beloved Wife’s friends and former colleagues, we grabbed dinner in a busy burger joint on the San Francisco Embarcadero and then headed over the bridge to Emeryville where the hotels are allegedly cheaper. San Francisco does not appear to have a nightlife. By 8pm all the footways had been rolled up and put away.

But San Francisco does have a decent public transport system, so after a non-existent breakfast at the hotel, we rode into town by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), found breakfast, and then went shopping. The “Largest Dainese Showroom in the World”, according to the advert, looked to be a promising source of motorcycle gear, but once again this was a disappointment. There was some progress, as they had the style of leathers that’s I’ve been seeking, but nothing that would come close to fitting me. I’d been planning to wear the leather jacket I was going to buy to protect against the freezing cold San Francisco summer. So much for that wonderful idea. It really looks as if I’m going to have any leathers custom made, and that’s phenomenally expensive and takes months.

Nob Hill really is that steep
Another thing that was almost impossible to obtain was a place on the cable car. Only tourists use it, we were told, and there was a queue at least a couple of hours long. So we walked – slowly – up the unnecessarily steep Nob Hill, and down again for lunch in Chinatown. The walk and refreshing breeze had stimulated our appetites and dinner just kept coming. There was masses of it. 

Postprandially, we went for a walk along the Embarcadero to be assailed by a variety of miscellaneous panhandlers and weirdos. One of them took a liking to my goatee: I warned him that I was in fact my own evil twin.
The immense Oakland Bay Bridge
At Pier 39 I managed to get a couple of photos of Alcatraz Island. Visits were out of the question: all trips are fully booked many days in advance. It was pointless trying to photograph the Golden Gate Bridge because of the sea fog. Here’s something else that will have to wait for a subsequent trip. We failed to miss the evening rush hour, and by the time the BART had delivered us back to the hotel and the car, we were in the thick of heavy traffic heading north through Berkeley and Richmond. Clarissa went nuts trying to avoid the $5 toll at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, so I shut her off until we were safely on the US-101 north of San Rafael.

Owing to the enormous expense of last night, tonight’s hotel would have to be El Cheapo. The first attempt yielded high cost and no internet; a second try in Willits resulted in success with lower cost, aircon, fridge, TV and free WiFi. The place was a little bit Batesian, but that’s part of the fun.

Less fun was the extremely cheeky Chevron petrol station that refused my credit card because I don’t have a ZIP code and nevertheless charged a ludicrous $126 to my account. A brief Google search revealed that this particular machine makes a bit of a habit of authorising $126. I wrote to Chevron, and eventually received a response to the effect that it’s not Chevron but my own bank that’s making the high charge. In other words, lies. I shall not by purchasing fuel from Chevron in Cloverdale, California any time soon.

An early start the following morning. There was no breakfast at the motel, and fortunately we spotted a roadside diner exactly opposite the MacDonalds, so a lucky escape there.

After breakfast, we headed north into the Forest Moon of Endor. The Avenue of the Giants runs parallel to the US-101. This is the old road; it twists and turns between enormous sequoia trees in a manner so beloved of motorcyclists. The gargantuan arboreal organisms tower way, way above the road. The size is difficult to comprehend, and only becomes apparent later, when driving through deciduous woods where ‘normal’ trees are so very much smaller. Some of the redwoods are thousands of years old. There were no ewoks in evidence.

We followed the US-101 north and into Oregon, sometimes following more scenic alternatives so that we could enjoy the trees. Again, the route is a super biking road. In Oregon, the route segues into a coast road with a town every thirty miles or so. Fog rolled in, and temperatures were around 12C. This was a bit of a shock when we stopped to refuel and Muggins got out of the car to clean the windscreen. In Oregon, all gas stations have attended service. Pumping your own gas is apparently not allowed.

The coast road is very pretty. Oregonians have suggested that it’s better than Big Sur further south, but I’m afraid I disagree. The drive is nevertheless excellent and the scenery magnificent even given the sea fog. Port Orford, Oregon N 42 44.74 W124 29.8 is as far west as I have now ever been.

At Reedsport we turned inland and followed yet another great biking road east to the interstate. The I-5 runs pretty much the length of the USA’s Pacific coast, and we followed it north through Eugene, Salem, Portland, and into Washington state. Having clocked something like 589 miles, we sought a motel and found the cheapest one in Woodland, WA that had internet.

Another jump here. I’ll come back to Seattle later, and for now move towards Wyoming and South Dakota.

We rolled into a tiny place called Big Timber, Montana some 650 miles east of where Bambi left a dent in the front left wing of the Dad Car, and just north of Yellowstone Park There was one available motel room and one parking space. Everywhere else was full of motorcycles and motorcyclists. Interestingly, “Bikers Welcome” signs were everywhere too, including at the rather disappointing Mom & Pop diner recommended to us by the motel management. At breakfast, we noted the “Sturgis or Bust” cardboard sign in the motel reception, and were told that this week was the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the largest of its kind in the USA and in its 72nd year. So we’d have to go, obviously. Being previously unaware of the event, I did check that it was Sturgis, South Dakota and not Sturgis, Michigan.

Bikes at Devil's Tower
A detour to Sturgis wasn’t really a detour at all. I’d already plotted a route to visit Devil’s Tower in the top right-hand corner of Wyoming and Mount Rushmore just over the state line in South Dakota

Eagles at Devil's Tower
Sturgis is halfway between the two. Inevitably, we saw more and more bikes. Almost all were cruisers and, excepting the occasional Honda Gold Wing, almost all were Harley-Davidsons. I found the lack of protective gear disturbing. Virtually no-one was wearing a helmet, and many riders and pillions were bare-shouldered and bare-legged. Each to his own, of course, but what may be appropriate for cruising slowly along Sturgis Main Street doesn’t seem especially bright on the fast twisty roads or the interstates. You can tell I’m the ATGATT type, can’t you?

Welcome to Sturgis
All life is here
As for Sturgis itself, many of the locals rent their front yards to stallholders and their back yards for camping. The main street was a constant flow of bikes and trikes in both directions. Side roads were the same, except for bike parking down the middle of the road. Bikes, chrome, denim, leather, tattoos were everywhere. Also beer, hotdogs and wet T-shirt contests. At one bar, the waitresses were so poor they could barely afford clothes, and had to dance on the tables in the hope that some kind gentlemen would put dollar bills in their bikini bottoms.

As Beloved Wife said: “… we were in the thick of it. Wall to wall sunburned, leather/denim clad bikers and farkle* mongers. We spent three hours in Harley hell, and I was such a fish out of water -- white linen trousers, silk scarf 'round my pony tail, no tats on my skin nor silicone in my tits -- but it was a slice of America and we ARE in search of America.

* Fancy Accessory. Real Kool. Likely Expensive.

Not today, thank you
The only car parking was $10 in the local cemetery. Actually, it was the only available parking space at all. I bought the T-shirt but was, as per flamin’ usual, unable to find the sort of bike gear that I’d now failed to locate despite travelling across three quarters of America. I still don’t want any chaps or a leather waistcoat, thanks. We bought enormous corn dogs and were offered discount vouchers at the International House of Tattoos by a young lady with bright red contact lenses.

“I like your eyes.”

“I love your accent.”

There may come a day when I get a tattoo, but it was not this day.

Too many bikes arrived at Sturgis like this
But presumably not this guy's
Even Santa comes to Sturgis (in disguise, obviously)
All types; all ages
What a magic helmet! Kill da wabbit! Kill da wabbit!
Mood lighting
After dark, the parade of cruising motorbikes showed no sign of letting up, but we needed to find somewhere to stay. We headed to Rapid City and Mount Rushmore. The story was the same everywhere: no room at the inn, despite “Rooms from $49.99” depicted in neon. It was easy to spot any of these places, because anywhere that looked like an inn or motel had a parking area completely full of shiny chrome two-wheelers. Choice eventually boiled down to that of Mr Hobson, where there was one room available, but no functional internet. Next morning was a Breakfast of Podium Finish. We had absolutely no chance of missing that: the 6:30am dawn chorus of 300 Harley-Davidsons got everyone awake and raring to go. And with good reason. All the roads around Mount Rushmore make for fun biking.

We stopped at a roadside layby on the way up to Rushmore. It’s a popular stop, and there was even a Porta-Potti in the layby. It proved an excellent vantage point to see the monument of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. It occurred to me that the $11 admission to a car park to see the same view wasn’t good value. Neither was $20 to see the enormous Crazy Horse monument down the road. We’ll come back and see that one when it’s finished.
Unfinished business with Crazy Horse
Onwards and eastwards. We turned into Sage Creek Road, an access to the Badlands National Park that consisted of gravel tracks across fields of sunflowers. We saw a buffalo herd, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and even a few other tourists. I stopped and asked a guy on a full-dress Harley if he was OK, which he was. It would be a terrible place to collect a puncture or run out of fuel. There were many more bikers at the eastern end of the Badlands, not least because this was where roads are paved in asphalt. Clearly I’m not the only biker who doesn’t enjoy gravel pavement. Advice given by Beloved Wife to one group of bikers was that there was a herd of buffalo right by the roadside, but it was about thirty miles down that gravel track.

More Badlands
Rather a lot of Badlands
I saw so many bikes ride past with the pillion passenger clearly briefed as Official Vacation Photographer. Given the scenery, I can see why.

Photo of the world's largest Bakewell tart

Just before crossing back to the east bank of the Mississippi, we had a snack in the “world famous throughout South Dakota” Al’s Oasis. If you’re reading this and you’re not in South Dakota, Al’s Oasis really is world famous. Coffee is a nickel, as it has been since 1919. Regrettably, over 250 miles out, and we were still suffering the Sturgis Effect with motels charging hundreds of dollars a night. Oh, for $30 in No-Frills New Mexico.

Another break in the narrative here for a non-bike section in Chicago and Michigan, to be blogged later. You rejoin the motorcycle stuff in rolling green farmland of Pennsylvania, where there were several big motorbike retail warehouses selling little or nothing in bike apparel. I had by now given up on finding leathers, but I could certainly use a new mesh jacket to replace the rather too small one that I’ve been using since 2009.

In fact, Beloved Wife and I were sitting in a diner in Falls Church, Virginia having successfully retrieved our marriage documentation from the UAE embassy, and I discovered a strong free Wi-Fi connection. The Google elves told us that there was a decent bike shop only a couple of miles away with lots of gear. And they were correct. The Accessories Department manager was a large, bearded gentleman who was sure he had something suitable for me in stock. The sales assistant was envious of my kilt, claiming that he wasn’t allowed to wear his while at work. I put his boss on the spot, and it may be that a kilt is now acceptable attire for sales staff.

Anyway, the choice of three mesh jackets produced a clear favourite once I’d tried them all on and sat astride a Kawasaki Concours 14. It’s a Joe Rocket jacket, with a removable waterproof liner and built-in spine, shoulder and elbow armour, and I even got a discount. I also got advice as to whom to approach for made-to-measure leathers from the interwebs. Well done to Coleman PowerSports in Falls Church, Virginia


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