Searching for Grit in Little Rock

Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross traveled by train from Dardanelle to Fort Smith, on the western border of Arkansas. She was searching for a man with grit, someone to help her track down Tom Chaney, the lowlife who had robbed and murdered her father. She hired Rueben Cogburn, a deputy U.S. marshal known as “Rooster.” A Texas Ranger is also looking for the killer, for an unrelated murder in Texas. He joins up with them and they head off into the “Indian Territory” of what is now Oklahoma.

Charles Portis’s novel, True Grit, was published in 1968. To celebrate its fifty-year anniversary, the Oxford American magazine is hosting a celebration in Little Rock, Portis’s hometown. The weekend event includes a screening on Friday of the1969 film starring John Wayne, in his only Oscar-winning performance, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby and Robert Duvall. The 2010 Coen Brothers version of True Grit, featuring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld, will be shown the next day. The weekend event includes speakers Roy Blount Jr. and Calvin Trillin and entertainment by Iris DeMent. (Garrison Keillor was originally scheduled to be the featured speaker, but he was quietly dropped from the agenda.)

Little Rock is also home to the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport. The Clinton Presidential Library sits on the bank of the Arkansas River, at the end of President Clinton Avenue.

Central High School, made famous by the “Little Rock Nine,” who with the help of the 101st Airborne, integrated the school in 1957, is now a National Historic Site.

Now that’s some true grit.

Colorado’s Mile(high) 419.99

You may have wondered how “420” came to be code for marijuana consumption. It originated in 1971 with a group of high-school slackers in Marin County, California. (Side note: there’s a really good place to eat in San Rafael.) The term has become so pervasive that since Colorado legalized pot-for-fun in 2012, milepost 420 markers have been disappearing at an alarming rate from Interstate 70. As a remedy, the Department of Transportation has replaced the marker with milepost 419.99.

Although Idaho has not legalized marijuana, they’ve had the same problem on U.S. Highway 95, just south of Coeur d’Alene. Who knows why that’s happening in neo-Nazi country? Idaho can handle only one decimal place, though, so they marked the highway as milepost 419.9.

(Originally published 2016)

Our Local Press Democrat Beat the New York Times

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat won a Pulitzer Prize this week for its “lucid and tenacious coverage of historic wildfires that ravaged the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, expertly utilizing an array of tools, including photography, video and social media platforms, to bring clarity to its readers — in real time and in subsequent in-depth reporting.” The Press Democrat beat out the other nominees, the Houston Chronicle and the New York Times. The fire destroyed more than five thousand homes and businesses, taking away a third of Santa Rosa’s tax base. (Kohl’s just re-opened last week.)

Our local newspaper has come a long way since Ernest Finley merged his Evening Press with the Sonoma Democrat in 1897. Both newspapers had been rabid “states rights” advocates and supporters of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Finley purchased the Santa Rosa Republican in 1948. By that time, “Democrat” and “Republican” had each done a 180-degree political change since Civil War days.

The Finley family sold the newspaper to the New York Times Company in 1985. The Times sold it in 2012 to Halifax Media, publisher of local shopper newspapers, mostly in the Southeast. Less than a year later, a group of local movers and shakers formed Sonoma Media Investments and bought the paper from Halifax. (One of the investors is Jeannie Schulz, widow of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz.)

The paper is apparently thriving as an independent operation in a very difficult environment for print media. The Pulitzer award should make the owners happy and maybe even increase readership.

Annie Wells, a photographer for the Press Democrat, won a Pulitzer in 1997 for her photo of the dramatic rescue of a young woman from a flooded creek by a Santa Rosa fireman.

Picaresque San Francisco

If you’ve recently been walking along the sidewalks or strolling the scenic byways of San Francisco, you may have been nearly run over by one. If you’ve recently been driving on the streets of San Francisco, you may have nearly run one over. Two-wheel scooters are the latest thing. Remember the kind with a handlebar you powered with one foot and the other foot balanced on the skinny rail between the tiny wheels? This new generation of scooter has an electric motor so you can even climb a minor grade without any physical exertion.

You can rent one in San Francisco, paying with a credit card via your smartphone. Just find one – they’re scattered all over – pay and go. If you’re like many, you’ll ride while playing with your phone, while weaving in and out of traffic – foot and automobile. You could be the first to be maimed or killed on one; better hurry, though, the inevitable may happen soon. When you’re finished with it, just leave it – in the middle of the sidewalk, as many do – for the next rider.

Not everyone thinks they’re so cute. The city has received so many complaints, the Public Works department seized sixty-some of the two-wheelers it said were blocking sidewalks and fined the companies that own them. “The public has the right to use the sidewalks,” said Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru. The three scooter-rental companies said if they’d only been told, they would have dispatched their “Operations Teams.”

Video and more pictures from SFGate.

Picturesque San Francisco

Aquatic Park, near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is a favorite of hardy swimmers. They can be seen most any time of day, in any weather. The cove, formed by two curved piers, is usually placid. Strolling along the Aquatic Park Pier, you’ll have panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and The City. (Locals insist it’s capital “T” and capital “C”) Warning signs tell you, though that the pier may not hold up under your weight. You could be a sea lion’s tasty snack.

Before There Was a Jurassic Park

Driving through the desert on Interstate 10 between Palm Springs and the Los Angeles megalopolis, you’ll be traveling through dinosaur country.

In 1958, after a career as a sculptor and portrait artist at Knott’s Berry Farm, Claude Bell moved to his 62 acres in Cabazon, a dot on the map adjacent to the new freeway. There he opened his Wheel Inn restaurant. To persuade motorists to exit the interstate, Bell began construction on “Dinny,” 45-foot high sprayed concrete on metal-frame, dinosaur. “The first dinosaur in history, so far as I know, to be used as a building,” he boasted. A second beast, a tyrannosaur named “Rex,” was erected a few years later.

The food and the giant sculptures gained Bell’s roadside dining spot a listing in Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood, an indispensable eating guide for intrepid travelers. The Wheel Inn and its creatures have been featured in music videos and most famously, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

Claude Bell died in 1988, at the age of 91. His family sold the property a few years later to a development partnership. The new owners obtained approvals for “a children’s science and museum exhibit,” including restaurants, a museum, and gift shop, and a 60-room motel. The developers built dozens more prehistoric creatures and promote their “Cabazon Dinosaurs” attraction, but don’t mention that it is a “Young Earth Creationist” museum. “Dinny” now houses a gift shop selling creationist souvenirs.

More recently, Cabazon became the home of “Desert Hills Premium Outlets.” The restaurant closed in 2013.